Three

The Escape

 

The conditions were so degrading and inhumane in the early years of the settlement that a staff member from that period later pronounced that anyone living there, children or staff, were doomed. Perhaps a huge sign warning of the perils that lay within should have been erected at the entrance gate. However, that sign would have had no effect on the boys and girls who were abducted with government approval from their traditional homelands— because they were illiterate. But Molly, Daisy and Gracie were going to be taught to read and write, this was to be their first day at school.

 

It was still dark, wet and cold on that morning in August 1931 when the girls were awakened at 5:30. The little ones protested loudly and strongly at being forced to rise at that ungodly hour to leave their warm beds. Molly got up reluctantly and walked out onto the verandah, peeped through the lattice and smiled secretly to herself. Gracie and Daisy joined her but they didn’t care for the grey, dismal day and said so in no uncertain terms.

 

The girls waited for Martha and the others to join them, then they made their way through the slushy mud near the stone wall of the staff quarters to the dining room. After a breakfast of weevily porridge, bread and tea, they returned to the dormitory to wait for the school bell.

 

Molly had decided the night before that she and her two sisters were not staying here. She had no desire to live in this strange place amongst people she didn’t know. Anyway, she was too big to go to school, and they had no right to bring her here. She was a durn-durn, (a young girl who had reached puberty), she thought, touching her small budding breasts. These government people didn’t know that she had been allocated a husband. But the man Burungu — had passed her over for another Millungga sister and they had a four-year-old son. So, reasoned Molly, if she was old enough to be a co-wife, she should be working on a station somewhere. Mr Johnson, manager of Ethel Creek Station, thought so too when he sent a telegram requesting permission to employ her and Gracie. The application was refused.

 

It was too early for school, so most of the smaller girls slipped back into bed. Molly, Gracie and Daisy did the same thing, but they squashed into the one bed with two girls at the head and Molly at the end.

 

Molly finished combing her light brown hair and lay watching the movements of the others around her. At the other end of the bed, Daisy and Gracie were whispering quietly to each other. Daisy, aged nine, had the same colored hair and texture as her eldest sister, while Gracie had straight black hair that hung down to her shoulders. It was very apparent that the three girls had inherited features from their white fathers. The only obvious Aboriginal characteristics were their dark brown eyes and their ability to control their facial expressions, so that when they reached maturity they would develop the look of a quiet, dignified Aboriginal woman from the Pilbara region.

 

The other girls were now getting ready for school, and the three watched quietly amidst all the activity. Bossing and bullying was everywhere around them and there were cries and squeals of, “Don’t, you’re hurting my head!” as the tangled knots were combed out with tiny, fragile combs. “Oh, Mummy, Daddy, Mummy, Daddy, my head!” yelled a young girl, who stamped her feet and tried to pull away from her torturer, an older, well-built girl who seemed to have adopted the girl as her baby sister. They performed this ritual together every morning before school.

 

“Come on, you girls,” ordered Martha Jones as she passed by their bed. “The school bell’s gone. Don’t be late on your first day.”

 

“Alright, we’re coming as soon as we empty the toilet bucket,” answered Molly softly.

 

          “I’ll wait for you then,” said Martha.

 

          “No, don’t wait we’ll follow you, we know where the school is.”

 

          “Alright then, we’ll go along. Come on, Rosie,” she said as she rushed out of the door into the cold, drizzly morning.

 

As soon as the other girls left the dormitory, Molly beckoned her two sisters to come closer to her, then she whispered urgently, “We’re not going to school, so grab your bags. We’re not staying here.” Daisy and Gracie were stunned, and stood staring at her.

 

          “What did you say?” asked Gracie.

 

“I said, we’re not staying here at the settlement, because we’re going home to Jigalong.”

 

Gracie and Daisy weren’t sure whether they were hearing correctly or not.

 

“Move quickly,” Molly ordered her sisters. She wanted to be miles away before their absence was discovered. Time was of the essence.

 

Her two young sisters faced each other, both looking very scared and confused. Daisy turned to Molly and said nervously, “We’re frightened, Dgudu (big sister). How are we going to find our way back home to Jigalong? It’s a long way from home.”

 

Molly leaned against the wall and said confidently, “I know it’s a long way to go, but it’s easy. We’ll find the rabbit-proof fence and follow that all the way home.”

 

“We gunna walk all the way?” asked Daisy.

 

 “Yeah,” replied Molly, getting really impatient now. “So don’t waste time.”

 

The task of finding the rabbit-proof fence seemed like a simple solution for a teenager whose father was an inspector who travelled up and down the fences, and whose grandfather had worked with him. Thomas Craig told her often enough that the fence stretched from coast to coast, south to north across the country. It was just a matter of locating a stretch of it — then following it to Jigalong.

 

The two youngsters trusted their big sister because she was not only the eldest but she had always been the bossy one who made all the decisions at home. So they did the normal thing and said, “Alright, Dgudu, we’ll run away with you.” They snatched up their meager possessions and put them into calico bags and pulled the long drawstrings and slung them around their necks. Each one put on two dresses, two pairs of calico bloomers and a coat.

 

Gracie and Daisy were about to leave when Molly told them to, “Wait. Take those coats off. Leave them here.”

 

“Why?” asked Gracie.

 

“Because they’re too heavy to carry.”

 

The three sisters checked to make sure they hadn’t missed anything; then, when they were absolutely satisfied, Molly grabbed the galvanized bucket and ordered Gracie to get hold of the other side and walk quickly, trying not to spill the contents as they made their way to the lavatories. Daisy waited under the large pine tree near the stables. She reached up and broke a small twig that was hanging down low and was examining it closely when the other two joined her. “Look, Dgudu, like grass indi?” asked Daisy, passing the twig to Molly to feel. “Youay,” she said, as she gave it to Gracie who crushed the green pine needles into her small hands and sniffed them. She liked the smell and was about to give her opinion when Molly reminded them that they didn’t have time to stand around examining pine needles.

 

“Come on, run, you two,” she said sharply as she started to run towards the river. On they went, dashing down the sandy slope of the cliffs, dodging the small shrubs on the way and following the narrow path to the flooded river. They slowed down only when they reached the bottom. Molly paused briefly, glancing at the pumping shed on their right where they had been the day before. Turning towards it she said to Gracie and Daisy, “This way.” She ran for about 25 meters, crashing into the thick paperbark trees and the branches of the river gums that blocked their path. Molly strode on as best as she could along the muddy banks, pausing only to urge her young sisters to hurry up and try to keep up with her. She kept up that pace until she saw what she thought to be a likely spot to cross the swift, flowing river. The three girls watched the swirling currents and the white and brown frothy foam that clung to the trunks of the young river gums and clumps of tea-trees.

 

 “The river is too deep and fast here, let’s try up further,” Molly said, leading the way through the thick young suckers and washed-up logs. They continued along the bank, making slow progress through the obstacles that nature had left in their path. At last they came to a section in the river that seemed narrow enough to cross. “We’ll try here,” said Molly as she bent down to pick up a long stick. She slid down the bank into the river and began measuring its depth just as she had seen Edna Green do the previous afternoon, while Daisy and Gracie watched patiently on the bank. “Nah, too deep,” Molly said in disgust. “Not here.”

 

“Gulu, Dgudu,” cried the youngsters as they ran to follow her through the wet foliage.

 

The three girls walked along the muddy banks for another 25 meters when they came to a clearing, devoid of any shrubs or young suckers, where the floods had receded. Molly decided to follow the paths made by the cattle. Another attempt was made to cross the river but once again proved unsuccessful. She walked on angrily, pushing the thick growth of eucalyptus suckers roughly aside, at the same time urging Daisy and Gracie to walk faster. But they decided that it was much safer at a distance and they followed her muddy footprints in silence without any questions, trusting her leadership totally. They were still fighting their way through the tea-trees for almost an hour when they heard Molly call out to them somewhere down the track. “Yardini! Bukala! Bukala!” Daisy and Gracie ran as fast as they could along the muddy path until they reached her. Molly was standing near a large river gum. As they stood gasping for wind she said, “We gunna cross here.”

 

As three pairs of eager eyes examined it closely, they knew that they had found the perfect place to cross the flooded river. A tree leaned over the water creating a natural bridge for them to cross safely to the other side. The girls scraped mud from their feet; then climbed onto the trunk and walked cautiously to the end; then swung down off the limb onto the slippery, muddy bank on the other side. They sloshed through the wet, chocolate-colored banks for at least another two hours, then decided to rest amongst the thick reeds behind the tall river gums. A few minutes later, Molly stood up and told her young sisters to get up. “We go kyalie now all the way.” They obeyed without any protests. Ducking under the hanging branches of the paperbark trees they hurried as best they could, stomping on the reeds and bull rushes that covered the banks of the fast flowing river. The only sounds that could be heard were the startled birds fluttering above as they left their nests in fright, and the slish slosh of the girls’ feet as they trampled over the bull rushes.

 

Now the question is, how does anyone keep travelling in a northerly direction on a dismal grey day without a map or compass? It would be difficult for an adult without the most thorough knowledge of bushcraft not to become disoriented and lost in a strange part of the country where the landscape is filled with thick undergrowth and without the sun to guide the way. Well, Molly, this fourteen-year-old girl, had no fear, because the wilderness was her kin. It always provided shelter, food and sustenance. She had learned and developed bushcraft skills and survival techniques from an expert —- her step-father — a former nomad from the desert. She memorized the direction in which they had travelled: it was north by car from Perth to Mogumber siding, then west to the settlement. Also, she had caught a glimpse of the sun when it appeared from behind the rain clouds at various intervals during their tour of the place on their first day. That enabled her to determine that she was moving in the right direction. The girls were relieved to leave the sloshy, muddy banks that were covered with reeds. Further up from the river bank grew stands of flooded gum. These were tall trees with straight, white trunks and a dense canopy of leafy branches. Amongst them grew the tightly bunched swamp paperbarks that were so difficult for the three girls to forge a path through.

 

Once they had left the flooded river area, the three were able to speed up their progress as they stomped over the wet grass on the flats and passed through an open landscape and under giant marri gums with thick trunks covered with grey to brownish-grey flaky bark. The girls trod gingerly over dry and decayed honky nuts that had fallen from the marri gum, trying not to slip. Nearby, grasslands led into a fenced-off area of sandy slopes filled with marri gums, banksia and prickly bark or coastal blackbutt. The sand plains that the girls came to over the rise were covered with acacia thickets and prickly grevilleas that scratched their bare legs. They tried not to let the discomfort bother them, but this was difficult in the cold weather. Stepping around the prickly, dense undergrowth and over the ground cover onto patches of white sand, the girls  continued on at their steady pace, pausing only to climb through boundary fences.

 

         It started to sprinkle again; the girls looked up to the sky and saw that there were only scattered clouds, so they trudged on unperturbed through the open forest of banksia, prickly bark and Christmas trees, that covered the low sand dunes. Eventually, the showers passed over them, heading inland, and the girls tramped through the thick wet grass. Molly, Daisy and Gracie tried not to look at the dark blue hills in the distance on their right. They were content to keep walking north at an easy pace that suited them well. Their sights were fixed on what lay before them. They had covered a lot of ground since crossing the main branch of the Moore River, over hills and sand dunes, and across the white sand plains. Yes, they were making very good progress through the open banksia forests and they had covered a wide area of coastal, sandy heaths and had the pleasure to see a variety of flowers.

 

They were almost past the clumps of banksia trees when they heard heavy foot falls. It sounded like someone or something was heading their way. At that moment, it began to sprinkle but they could still hear those footsteps. They were coming closer. There was another flash of lightning and in the distance they heard a rumble of thunder. The footsteps were even closer. “Quick,” whispered Molly and all three dived head first into the thicket and slid on their stomachs as flat and low as they could, not daring to breathe. They kept very still, frozen with fear as they lay under the cover of the tangled scrub and waited for whatever it was to appear.

 

Molly had no intention of being caught only to be sent back to the settlement to be punished by the authorities. The footsteps were so close now that the ground was vibrating and they could feel every step it took. Then they saw it. The frightened girls couldn’t believe their eyes, and they couldn’t move if they wanted to. They could only lie there staring at the “thing” that was emerging from behind the banksia trees. Gracie started to say something in a low whisper but the words came out as an inaudible stutter. She tried once again, but the result was the same, so she gave up and shut her eyes tightly and began to swallow deeply, trying desperately to control her fear. For several minutes after the “thing” had gone by, its footsteps still thundering along, the girls remained on the prickly leaves, pondering whether or not it was safe to move. Their young hearts were thumping right up into their ears. They lay shivering with fear.