Night in the Bush

Margaret sat on the front veranda and eagerly watched the shimmering blue sky for signs of a small silver plane with The Kookaburra written in red letters on each side. She knew that Kaye would be watching from the plane just as eagerly, straining to see the solitary house and stockyards belonging to Margaret’s family in the vast outback of Western Australia. Margaret had heard Kaye’s voice many times on the two-way radio set that brought the School of the Air into their homes. They had also exchanged letters and pictures. But she had never seen Kaye, and now Father was bringing her from her family’s neighboring station (ranch) over a hundred miles away.

Margaret heard the hum of the plane before she spotted it in the sky. She jumped and ran to their small runway, waving her white handkerchief. Then, when she finally saw Kaye, she felt overcome with shyness and hugged her lean, sun-browned father tightly.

“Well, Marg, I’ve brought you a friend,” he said. “This is Kaye.” He pulled both girls close to him, one on each side. “I reckon you two can be real mates (friends).”

Margaret and Kaye smiled shyly at each other as the three of them walked to the house. It wasn’t until they lay in bed that night that they began to really talk to each other and make plans for their week together. They decided to go on a walkabout (walking tour) the following afternoon down the dry riverbed.

Right after lunch the next day, the two girls set out on their walkabout. Margaret’s mother had put fruit and biscuits (cookies) into a dilly (mesh fiber) bag. “You’d better take jumpers (sweaters),” she called as they stepped off the veranda. Margaret looked up at the hot November sky and sighed. “It can change,” Mother said, handing them each a jumper. “Besides, you can sit on them to eat.”

The girls tied the jumpers around their waists and started off. The sun was stifling, and they were glad to walk in the shade of the giant eucalyptus trees that lined the riverbed. Peeling bark hung from the trees, leaving smooth white trunks exposed.

“Look at that,” Margaret said. They stopped and looked at a dead gum tree full of galahs. Suddenly the birds took flight, a pink and gray cloud rising and fluttering into the sky.

Kaye stared at the birds. “That was beautiful,” she said. “Do you like living in the outback, Margaret?”

“I’ve lived here all my life, so I don’t really know what it’s like anywhere else. It’s very lonely here at times, but there’s a lot to do. Do you like it?”

“We lived in Adelaide until last year, and I miss my friends and all. I get lonely, too, but when I see beautiful things like those birds, then I like it—or when I can be with a friend like you.”

The girls smiled at each other and clasped hands as they skipped through the rocks and sand.

Suddenly Margaret stopped. “Listen, I know a place that you’d really like. It has a pool and big red cliffs where lots of swallows have their nests.”

“Is it far?”

“Not too far. I went there in the plane with my father, but we were just up and down again. As we came down, we could still see our house. Let’s see …” Margaret looked back to where their house stood among the trees. “I think that if we walk straight north toward that hilly area, we’ll come to it.”

“Let’s do it!” Kaye exclaimed happily.

They left the riverbed and struck out across the sand. The afternoon sun beat down on them, and the hills were still quite far away.

“It’s farther than I thought,” Margaret said.

“It always is,” Kaye answered, “but let’s go on. It can’t be too much farther if you could still see your house.”

Just as their search seemed hopeless, they came to the top of a hill and saw the red cliffs. “This is it!” Margaret cried. They ran down the hill and into the small canyon formed by the cliffs, sat down in the pleasant shade of a gum tree, and quickly removed their shoes and stockings. Soon they were dangling their feet in the cool water of the pool. Margaret opened the dilly bag and handed a juicy orange to Kaye.

“It’s as beautiful as you said,” Kaye declared, as a busy swallow darted in and out of rock crevices, dipping toward the water and soaring up again.

After they had eaten and rested, they climbed through the rocks and explored the small canyon. Suddenly Margaret looked at the sky and felt her heart lurch within her. “Kaye, look! It’s getting dark.”

The girls scrambled quickly and silently over the rocks, both knowing how rapidly night could come. But before they reached the pool, total darkness had fallen—without any dusk at all! With no moon, only the white trunks of the gum trees were visible. Margaret shivered with fear. She had hardly been outside her house after dark, much less alone in the bush.

“What should we do?” Kaye asked.

“Let’s put our jumpers on,” Margaret said, trying to sound calm. They pulled on the wool jumpers, grateful for the warmth against the night’s chill.

“Can we make it home in this darkness?” Kaye asked.

“I don’t think so. We could lose our sense of direction in the hills and wander far off or step into a rabbit hole and sprain an ankle.” Margaret’s heart pounded harder as she talked. She knew that Kaye expected her to know what to do, and every minute she felt more terrified.

“If we climbed a hill, maybe we could see the lights of your house. You said you could see it from here.”

“That was from up in the air. No, the gum trees in the riverbed would block them out,” Margaret said.

The girls sat close together on a rock in the dark wilderness. Eerie sounds of night birds sent chills down Margaret’s spine. She didn’t know what to say or do. It surprised her when Kaye spoke.

“The first thing that we should do,” Kaye said firmly, “is pray.”

“Pray?” Margaret asked. She had never prayed. Her family had never prayed.

“Let’s kneel down,” Kaye said.

Margaret felt a little awkward, but she knelt in the sand and listened while Kaye said a prayer. Talking to Heavenly Father the way Margaret talked to her earthly father, Kaye explained how they couldn’t get home, asked for protection, and asked what they should do. When she finished, they both knelt there very quietly for a time. Margaret started to shiver, her teeth chattering, but her friend seemed to be waiting and thinking.

Kaye pushed her hand into the sand. “Feel how warm it is from the hot sun during the day,” she said. “Let’s take a rock and dig out a shallow hole. We can lie in it and sleep. In the morning your father will come looking for us in his plane.”

Margaret was amazed that Kaye could sound so calm and confident about spending the night in the bush. And it did sound like a good plan.

They felt around for flat stones and dug out their bed. Then they lay down together, their jumpers pulled close around them. Margaret stopped shivering, and she felt rather warm and cozy. Her fear began to leave her too. She was puzzled about Kaye, a city girl rather new in the outback. Yet she had known what to do when Margaret herself had felt paralyzed with fear. She would have to ask Kaye more about prayer. Margaret looked up once more into the dense, star-filled sky, then fell sound asleep.

A loud chorus of hysterical laughter awakened both girls in the morning. When they opened their eyes to the gray light, they saw that the gum trees were filled with kookaburras greeting the day with their strange laughter.

Suddenly, above the sound of the birds, Margaret heard the drone of an engine. They looked at each other and smiled. Then they jumped out of their bed in the sand and waved their jumpers at the silver plane with red letters, circling above them.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Karl Hepworth