Chapter 5 – Nullarbor

Back in his room, after the talk about their mum’s backpack, Ben took a shortcut to the left side to avoid the worst of his fishing lines. He fell down on the bed in one big swoop to listen to his iPod, until he had the bitter sweet idea of typing J A C K in large letters on his computer. He added a clip art potato, and enlarged it before printing. Then he drew a face on the potato, and a stick figure as the body on the same page. He pinned it to his cork board, threw a few darts between the lines, and felt so much better when he managed to land one in the middle of the C, and another smack bang on one of the big ears.

From the earlier conversation, he knew something was up. He couldn’t wait any longer and finished the dart throwing before going over to Jack’s room. Plastered with his ear against the door, he tried to listen.

Charlie came out of her room. ‘What are you doing?’ she whispered to Ben.

He was quick to mouth without a sound: ‘I want to know what’s going on. I thought you were both talking.

‘I want to know what’s going on too,’ said Charlie, doing her usual jingly knock on Jack’s door.

‘I’m glad you understood about homework,’ called Jack from inside.

Charlie took that as a hint, and opened the door.

That’s when Jack discovered Ben behind her. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘You tell me!’ said Ben. ‘So what’re you up to?’

‘I didn’t ask you, but since you’re already here, you might as well know I’m going to the cave. I’ll take grandpa’s GPS. He said the guy had one and they don’t need two. I’ve already copied the map on the printer when he wasn’t around.’

‘Hey, what do you mean with that you’re going?’ said Charlie. ‘I’m coming too. And if I’m coming, Ben is for sure. I won’t leave him behind. If we’re to find out what happened, we’ve got to stick together. Jack, you know it wouldn’t be fair to go without him.’

‘Count me in. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m coming,’ said Ben, trying to be brave.

‘No use taking kids on cave expeditions,’ said Jack. ‘It’s not a bloody school excursion. It’s serious stuff. No, he’s too young apart from that he’s too dumb. And you couldn’t drag the Bug Byte away from the computer, and all his rubbish now, could you?’

‘I can’t believe you’re saying that. Stop calling him Bug Byte! What’s wrong with calling him Ben? That’s his proper name, unless you say Benjamin. He knows as much about caves as we do. But Jack, you’ve forgotten one important thing. You don’t have a car. So, how do we get there? Catch a bus?’

‘Are you out of whack completely? When did you ever see a bus in the outback? Ah, well, maybe an old school bus, or possibly a Greyhound, but there will be no schools on the Nullarbor, and not that many Greyhounds either. We’ll take grandpa’s four wheel drive. He’s going with Andy anyway. But if we’re going, you’ll have to forget about the weirdo. He’s not coming.’

‘Just so you know it, I am coming. Definitely,’ said Ben. ‘You can’t stop me. If you don’t let me, I’ll tell grandpa what you’re planning.’

‘Sure you will. Always the scungy black mailer. Okay, okay, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but okay then. But if you’re coming, you’ve got to act like an adult. I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ Jack shook his head. ‘Have I so lost it? Yep, that’s what it looks like. So this is how it’s gonna be. We’ve got to pretend we’re going to bed like normal. Same time as grandpa. But instead we’ll prepare for the trip. I’ll organise the caving gear. You’ll pack your backpacks when he’s not around. Not too many things, just useful stuff. We’re only going for a couple of days. Whatever you do, be dead quiet, or nobody’s going anywhere.’

‘Quiet as a quokka,’ said Charlie.

‘How do you know they don’t make noises? No, don’t tell me. Okay, we’ll go to the cave before him. Then he won’t be able to say no. I want to find the exact spot where they disappeared. It’s strange that the guy’s girlfriend didn’t come back either. By the looks of it, we’ve got to be extremely careful. Caves can be risky, especially if they haven’t been fully explored. I wonder so much what’s in there. One thing to remember is that you’ve got to realise they’re dead.’

‘I know what you’re saying, but you’ve got to admit that mum wouldn’t have written it was some kind of creature if it was a normal guy. Should I make some of my scroggin? Give me your stash of chocolate and I’ll mix it in! I’ll get some soup packs and maybe some baked beans after he’s gone to bed.’

‘Whatever you do, don’t put the soup mix in the scroggin,’ said Jack.

Ben pretended to be aghast. ‘Yuck, Jack. Do you think she’s plain crazy?’

‘I have doubts,’ he replied. ‘About you as well.’

Charlie shrugged her shoulders. ‘It takes one to know one.’

‘And no more than a few cans of beans. They’re too heavy and take too much room, only a couple to have on the way.’

‘I hate going behind his back, but if he’s so stubborn, and doesn’t want to let us come, we’ll have to do it this way,’ said Charlie. ‘I’ll get my headphones, better than those other little things. Easy to lose them. And I’ll take my make-up and my …’

‘You can’t take all that stuff. We’re going on a camping … I mean a caving trip, not to a bloody beauty contest. Forget about it!’

Charlie was on the way out, but turned around. ‘Oh boy, you’re so immature. Anyway, we’ve got to write a note for grandpa.’

‘Okay, just tell him the basics, nothing more,’ said Jack.

Charlie and Ben stopped outside Jack’s closed door.

‘Why does he hate me so much?’ Ben whispered.

‘Didn’t you hear him? He hates me too. But I agree he’s got one serious problem with you. Ever since our dad died, he’s been acting like that, and when mum married your dad, he hated it. Then you came along, the cutest little baby in the world with the bluest-greenest eyes and that was it. Don’t worry! He’ll get over it!’

‘I can’t wait that long. He’s always so mean.’ He thought about how Jack always made fun of him being scared of different things. Ben had been wary of the dark and terrified of heights, and never wanted to walk past the fire station. He had always imagined the doors to suddenly open up, and all the fire trucks to come roaring out to run over everything in their way. Now he was older and wiser and knew better.

‘Ben, I love you,’ said Charlie. ‘Jack’s just a bit immature. And he thinks he knows it all, but I can tell you, he doesn’t.’

‘I think he’s off with the fairies,’ said Jack. ‘He’s doing his mega snores. I’m going out to the shed now. You two, if you haven’t finished, pack your stuff!’

Jack sneaked out the back to see what he could find. He knew the old man was likely to miss every single item of his old caving gear even if he seldom used them any longer. He had seen when his grandpa fiddled around with all the bits and pieces, sanding, oiling and polishing what he had, again and again. Everything had to be in tip-top condition. Just in case he was going away one day. Jack had often watched and realised his grandpa missed his caving days. Fossicking a bit here and there was hardly enough. Thinking about what to bring, Jack already knew his grandpa’s new friend had caving experience, and therefore must have the necessary equipment. This meant they could take what they needed from the shed.

Charlie threw together what she believed to be useful, such as underwear, an extra t-shirt, socks, jumper, her favourite scarf, lip gloss and other stuff, her headlamp, head phones, and her iPhone. She went to the kitchen and packed as much light weight food, as she thought was needed for a few days.

Next she started on the scroggin. After she had mixed the dried apricots, sultanas, chopped chocolate, crushed biscuits, almonds, peanuts and corn flakes, she had what she thought a brilliant idea and added liquid honey for extra energy. When she tried to fill the plastic bags with the sticky mixture, she realised she should have left it out. She wiped and scrubbed the bench top to get rid of every trace. At the same time she looked and listened, terrified that her grandpa would come out for a late cup of coffee like he sometimes did. When finished, she wrote an explanatory note and left it inside the bread box.

Ben worried about what to bring. He had been on a couple of holidays in the bush when they visited famous caves not far from home. One such cave was the Ngilgi Cave down south. Others were the caves in Yanchep National Park, north of Perth. Even if those explorations had been brief visits, and hardly any exploration, he knew full well that some things would be essential. Like his LED headlamp with super bright light. He also picked up other useful items found on the spot.

All of a sudden, he had the strangest feeling, as if someone told him something essential for the unknown cave exploration. He proceeded to cut down the fishing line with the big nails, and various other implements hanging across the window. Somehow he knew they could be useful.

Next he pulled away the chair standing guard outside the wardrobe, before he took a long hard look at the old ugg boots, and the worn out jumper hidden in the back. Not knowing why, he chucked all into his backpack and added extra socks, a spray jacket, one pair of clean jocks, and other important bits and pieces. He had to squash and push the last items in to be able to close it.

In the meantime, Jack had gone back to the garden shed for more stuff. He was careful not to make abrupt rattling noises. At last he found the two torches he knew were there. He tried them, but the batteries were stone dead. After another search through the shelves, he found a few bundles of rope under a bench, and two carbide lamps hidden in a box. He left the old lamps. He knew they would be too difficult to handle. Nobody used out-dated things like those any longer. Instead he decided they had to take their LED headlamps, but would have to stock up on new batteries on the road somewhere, expensive, but necessary. Another cost was diesel. He had that covered, as he had not used his full allowance for the month. He also had his savings towards a car from working at the hamburger joint. Charlie and Ben would have to contribute with whatever they had accumulated on birthdays and Christmas. He hoped they had enough.

Back in the house, he picked up the GPS and the satellite phone from the china cabinet in the lounge room. He also found a map of Western Australia together with a marker pen, which was coming in handy. He was going to draw a line to where they were headed just as there was a sharp coughing attack from the old man’s bedroom.

Jack froze on the spot. He waited breathlessly. When he heard the thud of footsteps, he sighed, put his arms up in the air, as if giving up, before he turned. He was surprised.

‘I should’ve known. Not a word from you. If he finds out what we’re planning, we’ve had it.’

Ben nodded and whispered. ‘I’ll fill up the water bottles.’

‘Okay, when you’re done you can have a sleep until about 11.45pm. I’ll tell Charlie as well. I’ll wake you when time is up.’

Some noises came from inside the bedroom before the hammering snores restarted. Their grandpa had gone back to sleep.

At close to midnight, Jack sneaked into Ben’s room. He was careful not to touch the fishing lines, but accidentally hit one. The metallic clang had no reaction from Ben.

Jack pulled down the doona covering Ben’s face, which made him jump.

‘What are you doing Jack? What … eh …? You look like Elton John!’

‘It’s grandpa’s old tweed cap. He always says it’s the oldest thing you could wear and still look cool. I actually think I look a bit like Justin Timberlake.’

‘In your dreams,’ said Ben, as he climbed out of bed to get dressed.

‘Look! I’ve got these frames too. They’re my old sunnies without the glass. If we get stopped by the cops, they’re going to think I’m an old guy going on a trip. See, we don’t want to get caught now, do we? How about that Bug Byte? Oh, you and Charlie have to hide in the backseat under some blankets.’

Jack left, while Ben, now fully dressed, tiptoed his way to the bathroom.

Before long, the boot had been packed full and the leftovers were stuffed in the backseat. They were ready to slip out of the house for the last time.

Jack slumped in behind the wheel. ‘I hope we don’t get stopped and searched by the cops because I can tell you, it won’t look good. Who’d go around in the middle of the night with bundles of rope and those sorts of tools in the boot? Luckily, we don’t have a dead body in there too.’

‘Can we come up with a story, so we’ll know what’s going on in case we’re stopped?’ said Charlie.

‘I know, but it’s got to be something believable. It would be best if they don’t see you two at all. I could easily be mistaken for an older guy. I’ve got a bit of maturity about me.’

‘Maturity, yeah, like an old cheese,’ said Charlie, with muffled laughing.

‘What about if you say you’re working on a documentary and you’re going to film inside the caves on the Nullarbor?’ said Ben. ‘You could be taken for an old crazy guy. You’re dressed like one. We’ll hide in the back seat under the blankets. I promise I won’t laugh. Did you get the GoPro?’

‘Don’t be so stupid, Bug Byte! Why do you think the coppers would believe that? They’re not all geeks, you know. Oh, no, I’ll pretend I’m going to Adelaide for a holiday, or something. That’s more believable. And don’t forget to turn off your phones! We want our batteries to last, and we don’t want anyone to trace us for as long as possible.’

‘Shouldn’t we also remove the chip?’ said Ben.

‘Actually, that’s good thinking,’ said Charlie.

‘I was just going to say that,’ said Jack. ‘Okay, let’s go now.’

Charlie and Ben pushed the car out of the carport, while Jack steered. It rolled down the sloping driveway and then backed into the street before coming to a halt. Jack turned the ignition key and the car started on first go. They were away through the suburbs in the stillness of the night.

‘Hey look, guys! Talk about luck! We’ve got a full tank. Okay, we’ll take Great Eastern Highway. I’ve already checked the map. First we hit Northam, then Merredin, Southern Cross, Coolgardie, Norseman and I think the last place is Balladonia, or something like that. There’s more or less only one way to get to the Nullarbor. If we’re lucky we won’t get stopped by the coppers. I’ve heard they tell drivers not to go on long stretches in the middle of the night. It’s too easy to hit a roo, and even if we’ve got a bull bar, that’s it. We’ve had it. It’s enough if the lights conk out. Stranded out in nowhere, in the middle of night, not so good.’

Charlie and Ben were sprawled under the blankets in the back, while they cruised through the outer reaches of the city. The whirring sounds of the motor became too much, and they were asleep before the first stop at a service station.

With short breaks to fill up the car with diesel, or get mugs of fresh coffee, Jack made it through some of the smaller towns. They were on a mission and needed to cover ground. There was no other choice than to get as far as possible before their grandpa found out.

Jack had kept awake by listening to the CD player, but now his eyes felt strained to the utmost. He had to get a break, and parked at the side of the road out in the middle of nowhere. A moment later he was asleep.

Ben startled when there was a sudden knock on the window. He dared not say a word, but stretched his arm through the middle to give Jack a hard push.

There was no reaction.

Another knock on the window and Ben gave Jack a sharp pinch.

‘Ouch,’ said Jack.

‘Are you okay in there?’ asked a voice from outside.

Jack rolled down the window a few centimeters. He cleared his throat and spoke in a darker voice than normal. ‘Yes, I’m fine, just had a bit of a nap.’

‘You’re doing the right thing. It’s a lone stretch out here. Not the ideal place, but not much traffic, and it’s wide and hard enough on the side. So, as long as you start off early again, I’ll let you off, and you can go back to sleep.’

‘Thanks for your concern. ‘I’ll leave early,’ said Jack, before the window went up.

They listened to the crunching sound, as the man walked through the gravel to his patrol car

‘Phew! Was that lucky or what?’ whispered Jack.

‘I nearly died,’ said Ben.

Charlie yawned. ‘What ..?’

‘Go back to sleep, Charlie,’ said Jack. ‘Save your strength for tomorrow.’

They drove off in the early morning hours and slept on and off when needed. The closer they were to their goal, the hotter, drier and dustier it became. The road ahead shimmered in the heat like a wet patch in the distance. By now, the strong sunshine started to bother them.

In the middle of next day, patience was running low on all three. Jack was exhausted and irritated. Charlie had had enough, and was uncomfortable, sweaty and bothered. Ben stared through the window, wondering if they would ever get there. He had a feeling they would, but had no idea when.

Without warning, Jack slammed the breaks to a screeching halt, flung the door open, and jumped out holding the unfolded map.

‘Too bloody windy!’ he screamed, and hit the flapping paper in frustration. ‘Hey, you two, show some interest, will you! You said you wanted to come, so get useful. Before we left, I wrote down everything on this map. So, if we go by the co-ordinates Andy gave grandpa, and the GPS, it’s got to be close to here … somewhere … No, something’s not right … but … hey … this is what it shows.’

Ben and Charlie kept silent. They had not moved from their positions of reclining in the back seat.

Frustrated, Jack threw the map towards them inside the car. ‘You do it better if you can!’

‘I don’t know how to do it,’ said Ben. ‘I know nothing about longitudes and latitudes.’

‘Come on, Jack! You know I’m not good at maps.’ Charlie threw the map over to the front passenger seat.

Jack threw himself inside. ‘You two are useless, absolutely useless.’

Ben had heard it all before, but tried to ignore his brother.

Trying not to miss the mark, they drove on at a much slower speed, while Ben had his head out the window to smell the bitumen.

‘Something’s wrong with that map,’ said Jack, after he had calmed down.

‘No, it’s not. I don’t think you’re that good with maps ‘cause I can see the turtle over there.’ Ben pointed. ‘You remember, grandpa said there’s a red rock. I think it looks a bit like a turtle. That’s if you look really fast. See it? NOOOUUU, not there, numb skull! Turn your head more right, it’s all the way over on that side.’

‘Okay, Benny Bug Byte, I see it now. Don’t for one second think you’re smarter! We’ll have to go in the opposite direction like Andy told him. Look! Right in there.’

Jack turned sharply.

‘No, you can’t go in there,’ yelled Charlie with her headphones on. ‘It’s a four-wheel drive, I know, but we might get lost. We’ll never find the place, and then we don’t know how to get back out on the road again. We might never find it. It’s flat as a pancake out here.’

‘It’s straight in, or nothing. Hope it’s going to be something left of his wheels. He might go ballistic when he sees his old Felicia with a body like a wreck. Well, if everything’s right, we should find what we’re looking for. Take those bloody things off, Charlie! Concentrate on what we’re here for, will you.’

They followed some slight marks on the ground, and hoped they were on the right track.

Ben was the first to discover the reddish-brown stones placed in a square. Inside were smaller stones in the form of an upright pyramid, the same as the picture on the copy of Andy’s map.

Jack checked. ‘Yeah, I think it could be the right place. We’ll park the car here. Get whatever you can before it’s completely dark!’

‘Get what?’ screamed Charlie. ‘Don’t you talk like a riddler to me!’

Jack shook his head. ‘What the heck’s a riddler?’

‘One like you, talking and riddling,’ said Charlie.

‘And you’re blabbering on like a nut, a big nut, yeah, a coconut. Hurry up now! Get anything that is dry and burns. We’ll have to get the car covered and a fire going, while it’s still some light. Where’s that damned opening? It can’t be far off. You two look for stuff, while I find it.’

Jack went to locate the entry. He came back and waved his hand in a blasé way. ‘I didn’t know, but it’s a collapsed sinkhole. I’ll move the car closer, but we can’t get it too close for obvious reasons. Get what you can and leave it over there!’ He pointed to a somewhat clear area of sand where nothing much grew.

‘Did-did you say sinkhole? Collapsed sinkhole?’ said Charlie. ‘It doesn’t sound like something I’d like to get into.’

Jack never answered. He was on the way to move the car.

‘It’d be okay,’ said Ben, but unsure of why he came forth with information he had no clue about. He just wanted to sound mature, but his mind worked overtime. Sinkhole? How much more could it sink? He knew he had to abandon the thoughts fast. First, he had to do what Jack had told him, which wasn’t an easy task. With no trees on the plain and no wooden twigs larger than the average pencil, Ben and Charlie worked hard to come back with some wilted skeleton bushes, dried saltbush, bluebush sticks and some of the dried, sharp Spinifex. All this barely covered part of the hood.

‘Nah, it won’t be enough,’ said Ben. “We’ll use this for the fire instead,’ while he opened the door to the back seat to pull out a big bundle from the floor. ‘I think we’ll better use this. You gotta realise they could send out a drone to look for us.’

Ben plopped his treasured army tent, an earlier birthday present from his grandpa, on the ground. ‘I thought we might need it. It could rain, but it’s also a pretty good colour to camouflage with, don’t you think?’

Jack made a face of disapproval. ‘I suppose we might be able to use it. You know what? We’ve only got two torches, so you won’t get one. Okay with you?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got my own.’

Jack’s eyes widened.

Charlie was about to grab her sleeping bag when a sudden loud groaning filled the air. She flung herself inside the car, and quickly shut the door, and pulled down the window, wide enough to talk. ‘Don’t say there’s nothing dangerous out here! I heard it and I’ll be staying inside.’

‘Must be the wild camels,’ said Jack. ‘The Nullarbor is full of them, but they’re hard to see in this light.’

The distinctive calling sound was followed by a louder racket, as if they were getting closer.

‘You mean wild ones as in ‘real wild ones’? She emphasised the words with her fingers. ‘You didn’t say anything about camels before we got here. I hate camels! They spit in your face.’

Jack laughed. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me when they see your ugly mug, Charlie. Just so you know, we’ll stay put here. No use to go anywhere else. If they’re here, they’re everywhere. I’ve heard there’s an over supply of wild camels. Come on out now! You’ve got to help organise some food.’

Charlie was hesitant, but stepped out of the car.

‘Just so you know it. I bet it’s going to be an icy-cold night,’ said Jack. ‘Don’t be surprised if we get dingoes cuddling up to the fire.’

‘What? Dingoes too? I’ll tell you if a dingo licks my face in the middle of the night, you’ll find me dead in the morning. By the way, if we’re sleeping out here, I’ll be sleeping in the middle.’

‘It wouldn’t just lick your face, Charlie. It would take a huge chunk off your big nose.’

‘I don’t have a big nose. Why are you always so mean? What’s wrong with you? You should reassure us instead, and tell us it’s safe here.’

‘Okay, then, there are no crocs. You don’t have to worry about being a croc snack in the middle of the night. What about that? Sounds better?’

‘No, not really,’ said Ben. ‘But there are no dingoes here, Charlie. They’re up north.’

She stared at him. ‘How’d you know so much about that?’

Ben raised his shoulders. ‘Grandpa said so … I think.’

‘Grandpa doesn’t know everything, Bug Byte, but stop this mucking around. We need more wood. And help me clear away the bits of grasses around here. We don’t want to cause a big fire because then they will find us for sure.’

Charlie and Ben moved around to pull away bits and pieces, while Jack scraped out some dirt to make an indent in the ground. He picked up some dry grass to form into a small ball. Then put a lit match underneath before placing it in the small hole in the ground. The fire caught on. He added a few twigs and kept feeding it with the other stuff collected for the car.

Jack looked up. ‘You’re still here? Hurry up! We need some real wood to feed the fire. Must be some root stumps around, since a few tiny trees grows here and there.’

Charlie left.

‘You too, Bug Byte! Get going! No work, no supper. That’s the basic bush rule.’

‘So why don’t you help us then?’

Jack never answered.

Annoyed, Ben trudged off to find what else he could lay his hands on. He came back to throw some dry bushes and tiny root stumps in front of his brother.

Charlie had found a tumbling skeleton bush, which was next to nothing.

The flames were like hungry beasts. Jack wanted more and fast.

Charlie grumbled, while they sauntered off once more. ‘Why is it that he can just sit around and we have to do all the work?’

‘Hey, he’s Jack. He’s always been Jack,’ said Ben. ‘We’re just the servants.’

They managed to find a few bigger pieces, enough to keep a fire going for at least a couple of hours. They were back, as the sun was about to set.

‘Help me cover the car before lights are out!’ Jack didn’t seem to want to acknowledge Ben’s good thinking to bring his Army tent along. However, Ben smiled and was happy to oblige. They tied it around the car.

In the meantime, Charlie arranged a tea towel on the ground where she put three cans of cold baked beans and some bread. She held out a plastic bag. ‘Here, have some of my fantastic scroggin.’

Jack put his hand inside, but the sticky goo stuck to him. ‘What did you do with it? Did you put honey in it? How sick is that?’

Charlie winked at Ben. ‘Not as sick as you, Jack.’

Jack struggled with the mixture in the bag. When his hand was free, he looked at it disgustedly before he shoved the fingers into his mouth. After a basic clean up by licking off the mess, he grabbed a handful of sand to rub both hands, all the while muttering and shaking his head.

‘Good stuff,’ said Ben. ‘But it’s better to take small pinches instead of being so greedy.’

He glanced at Charlie. Both had trouble keeping straight faces.

Darkness had fallen. The embers glowed in the big empty night. All was cleared away and they prepared for sleeping.

Jack thought it was the perfect time for ghost stories. ‘I know this blood-curdling story about a freaky …’

Ben put fingers in his ears and started to hum. He was scared enough with no other protection than a sleeping bag. His grandpa had always told stories about anything from wild animals to strange creatures, and if that wasn’t enough, there would be millions of insects in all sizes and of every variety. He thought long and hard if he was going to tie his fishing line with some clinging metal pieces to the tiny bushes for protection. But he knew what Jack would have said and decided not to.

Jack’s voice droned on.

Charlie had her hands on top of her ears. She mumbled incoherently and wriggled around on the sand trying to get comfortable.

‘What? Talk like a human, will you,’ said Jack. ‘Well, if you can for a change.’

‘This isn’t the right time,’ said Charlie. ‘Why don’t you tell us instead about the dishes you’re going to cook as a top class chef? Oh, and Jack, never buy your own restaurant. Not much profit if you’re the hungry boss.’

Ben buried his face in the backpack to muffle his giggling.

Jack, who was preoccupied thinking about the fire and how long it would last, had no time for replies.

The night was chilly and black as ink. A few moments later, Jack had dozed off and so had Charlie.

Ben stayed wide awake. He was more than worried. He was terrified. What if a dingo came to attack them? When he heard a drawn out howl, he wanted to sink into the ground, but yielded to some morbid curiosity and sat up. Did the shapes in the dark move? How many dingoes were there? Or, was it the mini-bushes swaying in the wind?

Then he heard it again. How far away? How many? What if the fire died out?

He knew he couldn’t wake Jack and was dead set against scaring Charlie. He tried to lie still and on guard, but the hard pebbles in his back were annoying, and so were the bull ants, spiders and millipedes. He imagined them trying to cross the border he had drawn with a stick in the sand earlier, and knew he had to keep awake to fight what he was unable to see in the dark. Using a stone, he hit at the ground beside him, while at the same time feeding the dying embers with scraps of dry grass, sticks and a few roots.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Distance Perth to Cocklebiddy

Map of Western Australia

© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 4 – Hoarder

Ben’s room was like a boyish junkyard inside a web of fishing lines, tied left, right and center. Some were close to the floor and some were higher, some were tense, while others drifted loosely across from one wall to another. In this maze hung utensils, broken or bent, which sometimes turned the room into a rattling inferno if he, or someone else, accidentally walked into them.

One wall had shelving with a few handful of books mingling with rocks, pebbles, fossils and gemstones. A shrivelled snake skin had found a home hanging onto a funny shape of driftwood with an old dried out apple stuck on one of the branches. In a corner was a piled up collection of old hubcaps and a box marked, ‘Ben Starling’s Unusual Stuff’. The odd thing out was the new desk computer, and a mouse pad with a picture of a block of cheddar cheese with a chunk missing.

His obsession with security had started after the devastating news about his parents’ disappearance. At the time, he had, with tears in his eyes, and a quivering bottom lip, tied some oversized rusty nails, a wobbly lid from an old saucepan, and a whisk with broken prongs to an old fishing line before rigging the contraption in front of his window. That contraption had been advanced with the fishing lines to cover the ceiling in the room.

From that day on, his insecurities escalated into some sort of crazy inventiveness. For that he needed stuff. More stuff. Any stuff. He had never understood exactly what had happened with his mum and dad, but ever since then, he worried.

Over the years his collecting turned into hoarding, and something of an art form. He became choosier when it came to selecting, and if an item had a certain clang, it was carefully tied to his expanding security system.

When he had advanced to become a significant hoarder, he needed even more important stuff, and with his constant urge to find what others discarded, he was always on the look-out wherever he went. His ultimate was to search the street sides before bulk collection days, always asking the owner if he could take what caught his eye. Never anything big, only smaller things, as they were easier to handle.

His attraction to smaller things had never included creepy crawlies. He feared spiders and cockroaches the most, and if he saw one too close, he screamed until his grandpa had almost obliterated the culprit, and flushed the remains down the toilet. His grandpa had resigned after listening to an expert’s knowledge that as Ben grew, he would grow out of his obsessions.

However, Ben’s ever expanding alarm system continued to grow as he grew. When becoming a teenager, he still had problems with insecurity, and worried about trivial things. The ultimate was reached when he placed a wire, with a collection of bottle tops and other small metal things, rattling at both ends, across the entry to his room. His mates thought it was just a bit of fun and learned to avoid the traps, but despite knowing of the pitfalls, his grandpa had tried to enter twice. This had resulted in stumbles to what sounded like a bunch of homemade tambourines, before he crashed headlong to the floor.

With his older siblings circumstances were different. When Charlie wanted to talk, she always stood away from the threshold. Jack never came that close. He treated Ben’s room as a contagious, quarantined area inside a mental asylum.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 3 – Making Plans

The same evening, as Bill walked through the door of the house where he lived with his grandchildren, Jack, the oldest of them, sensed the tension and the gravity. ‘It looks like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s up?’

‘Well, you’re close. I’ve got something incredible to tell you and it might be better if you get the others first, so I don’t have to go through it all again. It’s about mum and dad.’

‘What do you mean? Has somebody found something? Any bod … all right, I’ll get them.’

Bill went to get the backpack and sat down in the lounge.

Jack, Charlie and Ben gathered around. They discovered what was plain to see on the floor.

‘You mean? Has somebody found their … eh … remains?’ said Jack. ‘Where was it?’

‘No, nothing,’ said Bill. ‘I’m coming to where it was found.’

‘Have you looked inside?’ asked Charlie. ‘Is mum’s make-up still there?’

‘Yeah, I’ve looked, but I don’t know about any make-up, sweet pea. I want to turn it inside out again. You’ve got to read mum’s diary too.’

Bill told the story about the young caver coming into his shop, as he pulled out the small notebook.

‘Always loved that pattern,’ said Charlie.

Bill smiled and turned the pages to find the right place and gave the book for Jack to read aloud.

‘It’s a bit far-fetched, isn’t it?’ said Jack. ‘They met some sort of animal and it could talk? How weird is that?’

‘They’re Yowies mate’ said Bill.

‘C’mon, grandpa,’ laughed Jack. ‘You don’t believe that, do you?’

‘I can’t even remember them,’ said Ben.

‘Of course, you can’t,’ said Charlie. ‘You’ve never seen any.’

‘No, I mean mum and dad,’ said Ben.

‘Yeah, but you were only teeny-weeny when they disappeared,’ said Charlie.

‘Well, it’s a strange yarn for sure,’ said Bill. ‘I’m at a loss for words, but I know we’ve got to find out what happened to them. If you think about it, it’s almost the same as with my elusive piece of Marra Mamba. It’s just too hard to explain.’

‘You mean the rock you found up north? The rock you said was so special,’ Jack sneered. ‘And magic? Woo-ooh?’

‘Oh, yeah, it was something magic about it alright, but if you don’t know where to look, there’s not much use. I don’t think it’ll ever be found. Ah, well, I suppose they wanted a fair go,’ said Bill, thoughtfully.

‘Yeah, you know how they were. They just had to find it,’ said Charlie.

‘But-but I thought …,’ tried Ben.

Bill scratched his neck. ‘It was the magic about the stone, which had them spellbound and the fact that Yowies were involved. They wanted to be the first to throw some concrete evidence to the world out there.’

‘I’m sorry, grandpa, but are you absolutely bonkers? There’s nothing like magic stones,’ said Jack. ‘And if Yowies were around, they would be on A Current Affair, or Sixty Minutes, or something. I can’t understand how the lot of you can be so stupid to believe it.’

The old man shook his head. ‘Jack, if you’d been through what I have, you might think on a different wave length.’

‘I thought nobody else knew about Yowies and the special Marra Mamba,’ said Ben. ‘I believe it could be magic.’

Jack sneered. ‘Bug Byte, you believe anything anybody tells you. You shouldn’t be so gullible.’

‘Why do you always call him that Jack? Not nice. And you shouldn’t be so condescending,’ said Charlie.

‘Hey, Charlie, you don’t even know the meaning of the word. Go back to your filing and I’m not talking about homework! If you want your nails to look like sharks’ teeth, you’d better grind them into needle-sharp points like you always do. Strewth! Have a look at them! Shouldn’t be too hard to make them worse.’

Charlie looked at her hands. The nails were painted black with a tiny love heart sticker on each one. She liked them and made a gesture as to say that Jack was impossible.

‘That’s enough, guys! Stop that ear-bashing!’ said Bill. ‘They haven’t come back, so we don’t know how dangerous the cave is, or what’s happened in there. Andy’s coming the day after tomorrow to pick me up. We’ve decided to explore before we do anything else. One thing’s for sure. We can’t go blabbering about this to other people. I’ve promised Andy not to do that. It would be too big a deal. The media would be there in a flash and we can’t risk things going wrong. We wouldn’t stand a chance of getting in if the police with their forensics, or the whole scientific shebang, take up residence in that cave. Not forgetting the news crews.’

‘Can you trust the guy?’ said Jack.

‘I think I can. Anyhow, another shocking thing is that Andy’s girlfriend vanished at the time they found the stuff. He’s worried sick about her.’

‘What! Are you saying one more is gone?’ said Jack. ‘This is getting out of hand.’

‘The police might think he had something to do with it,’ said Charlie, with her thumb nail between her front teeth.

‘I honestly don’t know, but it might be a dangerous cave since they’re all gone. You kids have to stay home. We can’t risk anything happening to you. I should take a look before we decide what to do.’

‘What do you mean? We’re not staying here by ourselves doing nothing. We’ve got to come, of course.’ Jack looked at Charlie. ‘You’re coming?’

‘You can count on it,’ said Ben.

‘What? Did I ask you?’ said Jack. ‘You know nothing about caving. It would be stupid to bring you there. We can always find a baby-sitter if we bribe them enough. A diamond or a few sapphires should make it worthwhile maybe. Hopefully.’

‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ said Charlie. ‘But, Ben’s got to come too. There’s no way I’m leaving him here with somebody else. Mum wouldn’t have liked it. If we’re going to find out about them, we’ll have to stay together. It’s what mum would’ve wanted.’

‘I can’t believe it! You want to bring that kid on a serious cave expedition? Has he ever been in a cave? No! Another thing is if you can trust the guy, grandpa. I think it sounds a bit dodgy. Maybe he’s trying to trap you, or something. It could be the biggest con of all. Maybe he’s up to his eyeballs. He could be the one who did something to mum and Jerry. Have you thought about that he might have killed them?’

‘Just so you know it. I’m coming,’ said Ben.

Bill, who had been in deep thoughts, snapped back. ‘No, you kids don’t get it. The whole thing is fraught with danger. There’s no way you can come. I know what you’re saying about trusting the guy, but he’s not the killer type. If you’d met him, you would’ve thought like me. He did seem genuine enough even if he had a fungus face.’

‘You better be right,’ said Jack.

‘Oh, no, wait a minute! I hope he didn’t take me for a total galah. I don’t know, but it’s a scary thought that nobody knows what happened to any of them. But I know there are Yowies out there. Not many believe in Yowies, but I’ve seen one myself. Close enough anyway. But the note … well, that Yowie could’ve tricked them into following him.’

His mind wandered to the strange stone he had found up north in his youth. He continued by thinking aloud, while staring at an oil painting of a bright blue sky, red dirt and tufts of light yellow-green Spinifex on the wall.

‘What I can’t understand is why they didn’t come back. It should’ve been easy if there was some sort of entry into something else, they should’ve been able to find their way back. It’s just common sense. If there’s a way in, there’s a way out. Then again, the Nullarbor’s one of the largest karst regions in the world. It’s honeycombed with thousands of caves, hardly explored … deep and dangerous … easy to get lost … maybe … I suppose.’

He turned to the children. ‘No, you must stay here. I’ll ask Arthur to take care of the shop and Mrs Chiavelli can look after you like she always does when I’m on a fossicking trip. You like her Pasta Verde, don’t you?’

‘I don’t like it, but I understand what you mean,’ said Jack. ‘Oh, I like all Italian food, but we would’ve liked to come with you. Hey, did you get a map of the area?’

‘I made a photocopy. I’ll get it.’ Bill left the room.

He was back a moment later and put a piece of paper on the coffee table.

‘Here’s Cocklebiddy and here’s Mundrabilla,’ he pointed. ‘Andy has marked out this spot over here. He’s written down the longitude and the latitude from his GPS. What would we do without them? Okay, so here’s the highway and here’s a kind of dirt track. No, not exactly a dirt track since nobody knows it’s even there. He said there are marks on the ground, but they’re not marked out where we’re going. We have to head in the opposite direction to make it harder for others to find. Andy said there’s a reddish-brown stone in the form of a loggerhead turtle, yeah, that’s what he said, as big as a car tyre. At least I think that’s what he said … at the roadside, yeah, that’s right.’

‘Is that really what he said? I don’t think you can remember,’ said Jack.

‘Yeah, for sure I remember. It’s marked out at the opposite spot too. Must be some weird stones, I suppose. When we get there, we’ll need to follow the track for about six k’s. Then there’s a rock formation in the shape of a small pyramid. You can see here. He’s written down all the figures and stone formations. And to get into the cave, nothing to it, he said. I’ll get ready for the trip tomorrow and then we’ll leave early Wednesday before sunrise. He’s picking me up.’

‘They are dead, aren’t they?’ said Charlie.

‘We don’t know for sure,’ said Bill. ‘But, I suppose, after all this time, it’s more than likely.’

‘Of course, they’re dead,’ said Jack. ‘Parents don’t run away from home, never to come back?’

‘They’re not dead,’ said Ben. ‘I’ve got a feel … ‘

Jack cut him off. ‘Okay, so you want to believe they’re alive,’ said Jack. ‘You mean alive and living inside a cave like it’s some kind of a grotty holiday. The sooner you realise they’re gone, the sooner you’ll get over it.’

‘You don’t get it,’ said Ben. ‘You never will.’

They talked a while longer, discussing plans and what their grandpa should bring.

‘Yeah, of course, I’ll bring rope, plenty of it. Anyway, have you kids done your homework?’

‘No, I’ve got some English Lit. I think you said you had some too,’ said Jack and winked to Charlie.

Ben noticed. Something was up, definitely.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Lost DownUnder

© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2 – Find

Around four years later …

The ‘Barker Rocks’ shop in Perth City was filled with minerals, gemstones and fossils. On a myriad of shelves, among bigger slabs of polished stone, were smaller stones and inside a large glass counter, under lock and key, were displays of the most sought after samples of the remarkable Marra Mamba. They were placed there together with red-striped tiger iron, and big chunks of the best chrysoprase, from light yellow-green to the colour of bright green apples.

The shop-keeper behind the counter, looked up to discover a young man in his mid-twenties dressed in dirty khaki pants, and a frayed flannel shirt with the sleeves ripped out. His face was painted like a patchwork of sweat, dust and stubble. With eyes flickering from side to side, he strode towards the counter, while a full key-ring hung jingling from his belt.

The old man had a brief suspicion he was going to be robbed, but relaxed when the stranger nodded before dropping his backpack on the floor, only to bend down to search through the compartments, which again was a worrying sign.

A moment later, the stranger held up a small notebook with stained covers.

‘Where did you get that?’ said the man, leaning over. ‘Let’s have a look?’

The shabby-looking younger guy seemed unwilling to hand it over.

The older man waited patiently, while glancing towards the familiar Florentine pattern, a pattern he had seen many times. Thoughts whirled around in his head, while his eyes wandered over to look at the bag on the floor. What he saw made his heart skip a beat. ‘Hey, I know those tags! It’s not yours now, is it?’

‘Hang on a sec, will you? I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean. I’m here to return it. Is your name Bill Barker by any chance?’

‘Yeah, I’m Bill Barker. How’d you know? It’s not advertised around here.’ He stretched up to the switch on the wall, and turned off the background music.

‘I’m coming to it, mate. First I must ask you something. Are we alone?’

‘Yeah, but what’s that got to do with it?’

‘Okay, I’m going to start from the beginning. I’m Andy Crest. I’m a bit of a cave explorer, just an amateur, mind you. I don’t consider myself to be anything like a speleologist, far from it. Just so you know, I’ve had a shocking experience and it has to do with the backpack. From your reaction, I can see that it must mean something to you.’

Bill’s thoughts were in turmoil. ‘What’re you on about? Where did you get it? And why is it you don’t want anybody to hear?’

‘Can you keep something to yourself, Bill? This is kind of explosive stuff.’

‘I can’t promise anything, Andy. It all depends on why and what. Tell me more about where you found it first.’

‘Okay, I’m going to show you something, but you should lock the door first. We don’t want anybody to walk in here, while I tell you what’s behind this.’

Bill felt unsure, but went over to the entrance, turned the sign over and locked the door. He walked back to the young man, who still held the notebook.

‘Now, Andy, I want to know what’s going on. Where did you get that book?’’

It belongs to Olivia Starling. I saw your look earlier. Can I assume you’re her father?’

‘Yeah, Olivia was my daughter, but she’s almost certainly dead. Why do you have her backpack? I don’t understand. The way you come in here shoving that and her notebook in my face tells me you don’t know the full story. I want to know why you’re here first and where you found that stuff!’

‘You’re right. I’m sorry about your daughter. It’s a long story, and just about as crazy as it can get. Can we sit down? I’ve come straight from the Nullarbor, and have just about had it. Stinking hot in the car all the way. Suppose it would’ve helped with an air-con.’

‘Here, take this chair. I want to know … oh … are you okay? You want water, or … you fancy a beer?’

Andy wiped his forehead with a stained serviette from his pocket. ‘Water’s fine, thanks.’

‘I’ll get it.’ Bill left for the back of the shop, and came back with a glass filled to the brim with iced water.

It was emptied in one big gulp.

‘Thanks mate. Now listen to this! It says here that if you find this book, please take it to Bill Barker in Barker Rocks, a lapidary shop in …

‘What …? Give it here, mate!’

‘No, wait a second. I’ll read it to you. Here goes … Dear Dad, Jack, Charlie and Ben. I know this will upset you, but please understand. We can’t leave without finding out more. We should be back before we’re missed. It happened in the cave where I left my backpack. We entered and went searching. We believe the cave to be active, a virgin cave maybe. There’s water, even a small pond. I don’t know. All of a sudden we noticed a strange odour in the air, like something rotten … ‘

The old man looked questioningly at Andy. ‘Did you say ‘rotten’?’

‘Yeah, but listen to the rest, Bill.’

Andy continued. ‘A creature appeared, extremely hairy, walking on two legs. It started talking … ‘

Bill was taken aback. ‘I-I didn’t know they could talk.’

‘What do you mean? A creature and it’s talking? Sorry, Bill, I don’t get it.’

‘Yowies, mate. That’s what they are – Yowies.’

Andy looked stunned.

‘You must’ve heard about Yowies,’ said Bill.

‘You got to be kidding! They’re only in stories. You don’t believe in Yowies, do you?’

Bill smiled. ’’Course I do.’

Andy shook his head. ‘Ah, well, shall I continue?’

‘Yes, by all means, but then I want to look at it more closely.’

Andy read on with Bill hanging over his shoulder.

‘It told us in a few words about a place under the Nullarbor. We’ve got to see this. We will follow him.
P.S. The way through seems to be at back of main chamber. I will try to mark out where with some of my things. The creature indicated it could be tight to get through. I’ll leave my backpack here. We’ll take Jerry’s only, in case we need something. I don’t know why I’m writing this. We should be back soon. If not, my backpack might never be found. I can’t worry about that now. Of course, we’ll be back.’

Bill, with tears in his eyes, stared at Andy. ‘I don’t understand … it’s her handwriting all right …’ He stopped to pull out a handkerchief from a pocket. He wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

After composing himself, he continued. ‘Sorry, it just got to me. You see, they vanished about six, seven years ago. We haven’t seen them since. Tragic for my grandkids. I’ve looked after them ever since. Hard to believe, but the note looks fair dinkum. She’s obviously written that stuff. Okay, Andy, you’ll just have to take me there. I’m an arm-chair caver now, but used to do a heck of a lot of caving in my days, and let me tell you, I’m not dead yet. It’s like riding a bike. We’ve got to find that place again. I hope you’ve marked it out. You know where it is?’

Andy nodded confidently. ’I’ve got everything we need to know.’

‘Yeah, but do you think you can find it again?’

‘We’ll find it.’

‘You see Andy, if we can just work out where they went inside that cave, we might get to know more about the whole thing. You’re not spreading it on thick now, are you? Well, you have to agree it’s a bit out of the ordinary.’

‘What I’ve told you is the honest truth, man. Listen, the note isn’t dated, but it’s quite possible that the backpack’s been there for such a length of time. It’s always the same temperature, nothing extreme. Yeah, I can take you there, but you’ve got to hear the rest first. I’m afraid, there’s more to this story.’

‘What? Don’t say … that-that … you found something … like … bones … in there?’

‘Oh, no, I see what you mean. No bones, but something happened. I was exploring the cave with my girlfriend. After we found your daughter’s backpack together, she disappeared – pfft – vanished into thin air. I don’t know what happened. I investigated as much as I could, but couldn’t find a single trace, no hints, no clues, nothing at all. Then I slept for hours. Don’t know how many before I searched again.

‘Where did she go? And what did you do? Did you tell somebody? What about her parents, or the cops?’

‘Bill! Imagine if I went to her folks to tell them their daughter’s missing! Well, you can probably work out what they’d think. And it’s absolutely no use going to the cops. They wouldn’t believe me and I would be in the lock-up, falsely accused of something sinister, before I had time to blink. Of course they’d think I had something to do with her disappearance, but I can assure you, that’s not the case.’

‘That’s it! You’ve got to take me there. We’ve got to find out what’s happened to them. What’s down there? Might be some hard to reach areas. We’ll bring equipment, lighting, supplies. What about water? I’m not keen on scuba gear. So, when do we leave?’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1 – Barking Owl

A sudden scream made the boy shoot up. He turned his head fast from side to side, and kicked himself free from the blanket stuffed inside the sleeping bag. As he stood up, he pointed excitedly. ‘It-it was a scream! I know it was. Y-you think … it-it could be one of them?’

Well-seasoned in all aspects of camping, even sleeping on the ground without a tent, his grandpa stirred, and sighed, before he made it worse. ‘Yeah, they could be out there. Clear as mud. Look! The moon shines like a silver ball in the sky! You can see forever. Look really hard, and you might … oh-oh, there’s one!’

‘We have to go home! Now! I-I don’t like it here.’

‘What did you hear?’ said the old man, working himself out of his sleeping bag. He stood up to grab another piece of wood, which was elegantly thrown up in the air before it landed on the slow burning embers with a thump. A burst of glowing flakes soared towards the starlit sky.

The boy pointed towards the bushes. ’I-I heard it … from over there …’ He pushed his gear closer to his grandpa, while scanning the area.

The grandpa chuckled. ‘Only joking, mate, the bushes are swaying in the wind. I can’t see anything, but that’s not to say they’re not around. They’re kind of experts at hiding, but I can bet my bottom dollar, they’re not even close. They’re up north, days from here, so we’ll be fine.’

‘But, it was a scream. I heard it.’

‘Nah, I doubt it was a scream. But it could’ve been the barking owl. That bird’s got the weirdest call, strong enough to broadcast its whereabouts to every Tom, Dick and Harry. Most people only hear it once in a lifetime, if that. Not to worry, we’re heading home in the morning.’

The boy wasn’t so sure, but worked himself into his crammed quarters with the same abrupt movements as before. Forced camping trips, sleeping in the open with all sorts of creepy crawlies, made him wary. Always the worrier, he was already lost in his own world with a spine-chilling feeling he could not shake. He laid there waiting, while his arm went out blindly to hit the crawling intruders with a rock.

Another unexpected sound, the snapping of dry leaves or sticks, made him jump.

The old man looked up. ‘You okay, mate? Hey, listen, if you’re not too tired, I’m gonna to tell you something incredible, something I haven’t told a soul before. Well, not entirely true.’

‘I’m not that tired, but can you tell only true things.’

‘That’s not what I meant. It’s fair dinkum alright. The thing is I did tell your Nanna, only she’s not with us any longer. What I’m going to tell you happened many years ago when I was up north, in the magic country of the Kimberley. Most people would say I’m bonkers to believe it, but that’s because not many realise what’s out there. You see, I’ve been onto them more times than I can remember, and I’m not telling any fibs. You know that, don’t you?’

The boy nodded, and cracked his finger joints by pulling each finger twice.

The old man shook his head, and made a sign for him to stop the bad habit. ‘You see, the problem with most city folks is, they won’t go out of their way. They never think about poking around to find what’s out there. If they aren’t shown on the zombie box, mind you as real and alive, they plainly don’t exist. That’s what some might say. But I know for a fact, they’re real. Living, breathing Yowies are out there somewhere. The thing is, most of the time, they don’t want to be seen.’

‘So you’re saying Yowies are for real? How do you know for sure?’

‘Oh, yeah, they’re as real as you and me.’

‘I-I don’t want to sleep here no more. I want to go home now!’

‘Come on, they’re not here, not now. They’re far up north. But they’re a pretty friendly mob anyway, so don’t you worry. A bit like us humans, only hairier. Some are bigger, and some … yeah … some could be smaller. And they’ve got the longest arms, and feet as big as dunny lids. Some odd fellow here and there claims to have seen one. The only thing is that nobody has any concrete proof. There’s nothing tangible.’

‘What’s that?’

‘What I mean is that they’re untouchable. If you can’t touch them, they’re not real. It’s what some might say.’

‘So how’d do you know they’re real if nobody can touch them?’

‘Okay, I’ve got to tell you that I haven’t exactly laid eyes on one in broad daylight. I was close to touching him, but it was getting dark, and it was more like he touched me. It happened years ago when I was fossicking for new specimens. I was also on the look-out for new caves, unexplored ones, where nobody had set foot before, at least not for thousands of years. You can find lots of interesting thingies in there.’

‘What thingies?’

‘Well, fossils for one thing.’

‘Okay, I like fossils,’ said the boy.

‘I know you do. I think fossils are the most fascinating things on this earth. They tell us stories about long ago, absolutely mind boggling. They might even beat gemstones.’

‘I like thunder eggs.’

‘Well, on this search, in the far north, I’d seen their tracks and traced them for days when I stumbled onto their nesting sites. Built like hollows in the ground they are and then they’ll line them and cover them with branches and leaves … eh … eucalyptus, wattle, tea-tree, sandalwood, peppermint … you know … anything sweet smelling they can lay their hands on. Yep, I’d tracked them down to a fine point, but …’

‘Are you sure they’re not footprints from some ‘digenous people?’

‘Oh, no, they weren’t the indigenous ‘cause they’ve got normal-sized feet. Yowies have feet like … you wouldn’t believe it … big ones with long, chubby toes. I bet they could hang upside down with their toes curled around a tree branch if they wanted to. But, hey, that’s not all! They’d lured me on another wild goose chase. I had followed their tracks for days, going ‘round in circles, couldn’t find my way, hardly knew north from south. It was almost like fishing up a dry gully. And then it happened.’

‘What do you mean? What happened?’ He was resting on one elbow, but sat up to push closer, while bringing his sleeping bag along, the tiny distance left.

The old man put a reassuring arm around his grandson, and then continued. ‘Well, I stumbled, not onto something, more into it. It was a huge wide hole in the ground. What I found there has haunted me ever since. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone. Ah, well, I did tell your Nanna, but that’s not the same and you’re old enough now, my boy. You see, I found something in that place, in that humongous oversized crater. Hey, did you know it’s called the Wolfe Creek crater?’

The boy tumbled out of the bag to stand up. ‘No, I didn’t. What did you find? What was it?’

‘Believe you me! It was absolutely amazing!’

‘Yeah, but-but what was it?’

‘It was a stone, but not just any stone. It was a polished piece of my favourite, the incredible Marra Mamba. And it was a beauty! The best I’ve come across. It had the most amazing chatoyancy …’

‘What’s that?’

‘Well, it’s the lustre … the shining. It gleamed like a real tiger’s eye with lacy black hematite and red jasper, which wasn’t exactly red, more pinkish. I saw some fantastic lines of yellow, green, and even blue. It was a quality I’d never seen before. The real Marra Mamba comes from the Pilbara, around Mount Brockman, so it wasn’t exactly the right spot apart from that this piece had been cut, and polished, which was weird. But even weirder was that it was in the shape of … well, the shape is kind of hard to describe … it was almost like a small cross-bow, if you know what I mean. Very strange how it was shaped like that.’

The boy’s eyes blazed. ‘Like a real cross-bow? You-you mean, like a REAL one?’

‘Well, almost. One long piece, and another on top, in a shape of a T, a bit like this.’ He held out his hands to show. ‘But the thing is that there was no mechanism to shoot with, so it was definitely no weapon. To find it there was as odd as finding a tribe of wonky wombats in a backpack. I couldn’t for my life work out how the stone came to be there, or what it was for. Maybe its formation had something to do with how the crater came about. Did you know that a meteorite from outer space crashed right there millions of years ago?’

The boy looked at his fist. ‘Was it this size?’

‘You mean the meteorite?’

‘NOOOUUU, I mean the stone!’

‘Nah! It was long as my hand, but the funny thing was that it was placed in the crater, almost like it was there, ready and waiting for … ah, well … I don’t know what it was waiting for really. Only, there was this red-tailed black cockatoo flitting about, and screeching like a mad piglet. And a mighty eagle circled for prey high above. I reckon they were both there to protect it.’

‘So … could you take it?’

‘The cocky didn’t want me to, but that didn’t stop me. I ran around jumping up and down like I was doing some kind of Indian rain dance, while the eagle swooped down across the top of my head like a raving magpie. In the end I managed to shoo them off, but just as I was about to grab it, a scorpion crawled out from underneath. It scared the heck out of me. Yep, then it was mine, but not for long. The same night it disappeared.’

The boy’s eyes widened. ‘Why? How come?’

‘Well, I can’t tell you why, but I’ll tell you how. After I found the precious stone, I made myself a cozy little campfire close to the crater’s edge. My throat was dry like a lizard’s tongue, so I put my billycan on the fire to have a cuppa before turning in. I knew I needed a good night’s sleep to get my bearings right after trailing around all day in the dazzling sun. A fellow could get sunstroke for less, but no need to fret, I thought. I had enough water, and knew of a couple of good waterholes along the way. I reckoned I’d be on my way home the next morning. I knew that my Alice, she’d bring me back to civilisation even if I was hanging half-dead around her neck.’

‘Who’s Alice? She must be really strong.’ He watched as his grandpa took another sip from a dirty tin mug.

‘Alice? You know, Alice. I’ve told you about my camel.’

The boy giggled. ‘I thought you meant a woman.’

‘Oh, did you now? No, mate, in those days when I lived up north, I had my trustworthy camel. It hardly left my side. Hmm … a camel was so much better than a four-wheel drive today, and cheaper on the upkeep too.’

‘I wish I had a camel,’ the boy said dreamily even if he had never been close to one. ‘What do they eat? Grass maybe?’

‘Yeah, they eat grass and stuff. Usually, heaps of things around to munch on if you’re a camel. But it would be hard to keep one where we live, mate. Anyway, just before sunset and using the fading light from the campfire, I held the stone, and discovered something. This was no ordinary run of the mill. No, far from it! It was odd, like the mate of a lost sock, and what it did to me was even stranger. Before I knew it … it was sudden … an odour of rotten eggs, and a rustle from behind. I heard a grunt, and then, as swift as anything, a hairy hand came from somewhere, and grabbed my arm, and took it. Oh, boy, that was the closest I’ve ever been to one of them. The moon was swallowed by a cloud, and I only had the light from the fire, so I didn’t see that much, but I can bet my bottom dollar that they’re real. Know what? I saw his footprints the next morning. Bigger than any human I’ve ever seen. They’re out there all right. I know they are. Not an inkling of doubt in my mind.’

‘So … so you mean … did-did one of them grab it? Do you think it belonged to them?’

‘I don’t know, but it’s possible, I suppose. This one seemed to know what he was doing alright.’

‘But you were the one who found it. Finders, keepers.’

‘Yeah, but, it could be fair dinkum. Maybe the stone was his. I just wish I could’ve discovered its full powers. If only …’

‘I wish I could’ve seen it too.’ He closed his eyes to try and imagine the stone. He saw the coloured layers and knew exactly what it looked like. Then he remembered something. ‘Grandpa, you said that it did something. What was it?’

‘Did I? Oh, yeah, that’s right. I sat there, under the moon light, while staring at the rock in my hand. All of a sudden I felt a sort of energy rush through my body. Then the stone began to shift colour. It turned red, glowing like on fire, but funnily enough, it was only lukewarm. Then it happened. First I lost concentration. I fell off the log with a sudden thumpety-bump. A few secs later, it was grabbed from my hand. Gone! Since then I’ve always wondered what kind of magical powers it had. There was something so neat about that rock.’

The boy was hooked. He knew he had to lay his hands on the stone. ‘I’ll find it for you, grandpa. I’ll look everywhere until I find them too. They must have it.’

‘No, son, you shouldn’t say things like that. Why did I tell you? How could I’ve been so dumb? It’s just too dangerous. Your mum and dad wanted to find the stone too. I wish I’d never opened my big mouth.’

‘But you said only Nanna knew.’

‘Ah, well, I … did tell your mother when she was just a nipper. Much later when she met your dad who was also into caving, she told him. That was it. Your dad was the same. Both were entranced up to their eyeballs, just had to find them, and the rock. Every chance they had, they went scouring the outback. You kids were too young to roam around. Well, you were only around five or six at the time. It can be risky for young ones to explore unknown caves. That’s why you lot stayed with me when they were hit by the rock bug.’

The boy bit his bottom lip, and tried to choke his emotions. ‘But-but why didn’t they come back?’

‘Sorry, mate, nobody knows why. We don’t know what happened out there. Oh, why did I ever tell her? And why … why didn’t they tell someone exactly where they were headed? It’s the cardinal rule when caving.’

‘I don’t remember them that much.’

‘You look so much like your mum. You’ve got the same blond hair and the same colour eyes, just like the Indian Ocean in summer, yeah, a bit like aquamarines. It’s too painful … and it’s all my fault.’

‘Do-do you think they’ll come back?’

‘It’s been too long now. I doubt they’ll ever be back. They were searching for the Yowies, and the elusive rock, and never heard from again. It’s been more than two years now. They said they had to find them. But at what price? The outback can be a mighty dangerous place, as many find out the hard way.’

‘Did-did … they go to Kimberley too?’

‘No, not that time. The last we know is that they were searching the big wide plain, the Nullarbor. There’s a conundrum out there …’

‘What’s a conundrum?’

‘Oh, a conundrum is … well … it’s some kind of puzzle. Too many caves out there. It could be hundreds, or even thousands of limestone caves. Nobody knows for sure. The humongous area is like an enormous underground honeycomb filled with mysterious blowholes, and tunnels with water, yeah, just about everything. I’ve been in a few of them. It’s kind of scary stuff. Your mum and dad were seen at Mundrabilla and then somebody saw when they bought provisions at a service station in Cocklebiddy, but there was no other trace. No abandoned car either. Well, somebody could’ve nicked it, done a paint job, and changed the number plates. Nobody knows what happened. They were always so careful, but for some reason they were never seen again. The whole lot was gone, down to the rims of the wheels, yeah, everything.’

The old man heard a few sobs. He put his arm around his grandson to hug him closer.

‘Well, I’m a silly bugger to tell you this now. Tomorrow morning we’ll drive back home, and have pancakes for breakfast with Jack and Charlie. Ben, no, don’t cry now. Try not to think about it. School starts again on Monday. That’s good, isn’t it? Beaut out here, don’t you think? Lucky, it’s not raining, hey? To sleep under the stars, there’s no better way to sleep, hey?’

His guilt was there, brewing underneath like a never ending scourge. Why had he told his daughter? She had been a young girl at the time, and she had never forgotten. Now she was gone, and so was her husband. And here he was doing it all again to his much- loved grandson.

Ben stared into the fire, thinking about his parents. He had not seen them for such a long time, and he missed them. At home he had their wedding photo in a frame in his room, and his mum’s worn sheepskin boots, plus his dad’s old, faded fleece jumper hidden in his wardrobe. He had retrieved them from the rubbish bin at the time they were thrown out. He knew he had to keep them in case they came back. Sometimes, when hiding in the wardrobe, he snuggled up close to the things in the dark. Jack, his older half-brother, always made fun of him. He could almost hear his voice. ‘You’re such a weird little hoarder. Who’d want to keep old uggies and a worn out jumper? Realise it, Benny Bug Byte, you little idiot! They’re gone! They’re never coming back!’

He felt a strong urge to cry, and closed his eyes tightly. Seconds later, when he opened them, and looked into the fire, the flames were stronger, swaying and dancing, enticing him to concentrate harder.

Suddenly he saw something he knew was not supposed to be there. He rubbed his eyes, but the reflections continued. He watched as a flurry of images floated by in a haze … a picture of his parents standing close to a large slab of stone … then another image of the strangest object hanging above his mum’s head … her bare feet … in an eerie kind of light … an enormous castle built out of oddly shaped rocks … covered in moss, and twisted, tangled vines … with highly structured, but primitive-looking balconies almost hidden behind a mass of tousled tree roots … then another picture floated by … a strange-looking figure of a hairy boy with the most peculiar bag, decorated with bones and feathers, hanging at his side. As sudden as the last image had appeared, every scrap of every picture was gone.

He tried his hardest to retrieve what he had seen, but it was fruitless. As he was on the brink of falling asleep, he never had a chance to tell his grandpa who stood on the other side of the fire, fiddling with their gear.


In the morning, the dancing flames with the astonishing pictures had been blown away from his mind like gas-filled balloons, sailing away into the upper atmosphere, never to be seen again.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction to Lost DownUnder

The story of Lost DownUnder has not been published as a printed book, nor as an e-book. Instead it will be provided here in chapter form by the writer Lena Nilsson.

Have you ever wondered what is under the Nullarbor in Western Australia? Did you know that millions of years ago, as landmasses drifted apart, an ancient continent became hidden?

The Panghellan Lands, under the dusty crust, is filled with limestone caves, blowholes, tunnels, waterlogged terrain, swamps, sinkholes, dried out seabeds, and strangely growing forests.

Enter the puzzling land on purpose, or by mistake, and you may be doomed.

There is no way out – not without the keystone.

Lost DownUnder is a chilling fantasy adventure mixed with old fashioned magic. Suitable for 9-12 year olds, or much older, if in need of a bit of easy reading. You’re never too old to escape into a different world.

The story is completed and comprised of approx. 35 chapters, but every chapter is reworked slightly before published on

Should you be in the mood for more reading after checking out Lost DownUnder, please go to my blog:

Crochet Creativity, Travel Memories and Trivia

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

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