The Rabbit Proof Fence
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.
It was another few seconds before they regained their composure and their fear subsided. Only then could they rise and stand firmly on their feet without shaking, to continue their trek homewards.
“That was a marbu, indi Dgudu? (That was a flesh eating spirit - wasn’t it older sister?)” said Daisy, still obviously shaken by what she had seen.
“Youay (yes), it was a marbu alright,” Molly agreed. “A proper marbu,” she added shivering as she remembered the frightening image.
Yes, the thing fitted the description of a marbu — a sharp-toothed, flesh-eating evil spirit that has been around since the Dreamtime. The old people always told children to be careful and to watch out for them and now the three girls had finally seen one.
“That marbu had a funny head and long hair. He was a big one alright,” said Daisy.
There seems to be only one logical explanation to that phenomenon, and that was the so-called marbu may have been a particularly large, hairy Aboriginal man with prominent facial features who was running to beat the storm that was brewing and the fast approaching nightfall. The man’s giant-like stature may have played upon the girls’ imaginations and their belief in a mythical being of the Dreamtime stories. But to these children from the Western Desert it was genuine, and no one could tell them otherwise.
“Quickly,” urged Molly. “Let us get away from this place.” The sight of the marbu had unnerved her so she was also very scared. “There might be others around here. We gotta go away from this bad place,” she added urgently with a slight tremble in her voice. “It’s getting dark. We have to find a good, safe place to make a camp for the night.”
Molly scanned the surrounding countryside swiftly, then paused and pointed to a small range of sand dunes not far from the forest of banksia trees. The two younger sisters nodded. They could see the shallow valley of deep sand and the sand dunes on the left and began making their way towards them.
“See that,” said Molly when they reached the sand dunes, pointing to the rabbit warrens. “We’ll just dig one. We have to make it big enough for three of us to fit into.”
“We gunna sleep in the bunna (in a dirt-hole) like rabbits too, Dgudu?” asked Grace.
“Youay, nobody gunna look in a rabbit burrow for us, indi,” replied Molly confidently.
“That’s true, no one will find us in there,” said Daisy as she joined them.
So crouching on their knees, they dug furiously with their elbows almost touching each other’s. Very soon they managed to widen and deepen a deserted burrow to make a slightly cramped but warm, dry shelter. This was their first night out in the bush since leaving their homes in the East Pilbara.
Before the three sisters settled down to sleep, they ate some of the dry crusts of bread and drank the cool, clear water from the pools at the bottom of the valley. They had nibbled on some of the bread while they walked during the afternoon.
Molly had chosen a rabbit burrow that faced east, because she had noticed that the rain came from the west over the coast. They would be well protected from the wet and cold while they slept. Crawling in one at a time, they cuddled up together in the rabbit burrow, wriggling and twisting around until they were comfortable. Soon, with the warmth of their young bodies and weariness, Daisy and Gracie drifted off to sleep. With their heads resting on their calico bags at the entrance and their feet touching the sandy wall at the back of the burrow they felt safe and warm.
While her two sisters were sleeping, Molly lay quietly listening to the rain falling steadily on the sand outside. She was too tense and had too much on her mind to relax and go to sleep just yet. But despite that, she felt safe inside the rabbit burrow. Tomorrow, she told herself, I will find the rabbit-proof fence, and it will take us all the way home to Jigalong. The thought raised her hopes, and a few minutes later she too drifted off into sleep.
Suddenly Molly and Daisy were awakened by the frightened cries of Gracie, “Dgudu, Dgudu, where are you?”
“I’m here, right next to you. What’s wrong?” Molly asked.
“Dgudu, that marbu, he came back and pulled me by the hair. He tried to drag me outside,” she said shivering and sobbing loudly.
“Shush, don’t cry,” said Molly as she put her arm around her. “It was just a bad dream. Go back to sleep. I won’t let anything bad happen to you,” she promised. Molly managed to calm Gracie and soon they all fell asleep once again.
The next morning, very early, the three girls were awakened by the thump, thumping of rabbits from adjoining burrows.
“It’s not worth trying to catch any rabbits this time,” said Molly disappointedly.
“Why can’t we catch any rabbits, Dgudu?” queried Gracie, brushing the pale yellow sand off her legs, while trying rather feebly not to think of the aroma and taste of a freshly cooked rabbit.
At that moment, Gracie spied one and gave chase, caught and killed it.
“What did you do that for?” asked Molly angrily, “I told you, we got no matches to make a fire to cook it.”
Gracie replied, “Well, I’m hungry,” as she searched around for a sharp object with which she could gut the rabbit. Finding none, she swore loudly then threw it hard on the ground, and stomped off over the thick prickly undergrowth. So instead of rabbit roasted over the coals for breakfast, there was plenty of fresh water from the pools at the bottom of the valley and stale crusts from the settlement. This was their second meal on the run.
“Dgudu,” said Gracie, “we should go back to the settlement. We might die. Come on, we go back,” she pleaded. She was still shaken by the sight of a real marbu (monster). There might be more lurking in the woodlands.
“You want to go back to the settlement?” retorted Molly angrily. “You heard what they’ll do to us. They’ll shave our heads bald and give us a big hiding and lock us up in the little jail,” she said shaking her finger, while Daisy stood by silently watching and listening. “You want to go back! You’re mad! We three came down together, and we will go home together. We’re not going to die in the bush,” she assured her. “So let’s move,” she added finally as she strode off into the acacia thickets.
Gracie became stubborn and refused to move. “I’m hungry Dgudu. I want some mundu (meat), not just bread and water.”
Molly stopped and turned to face her young sister. “I know that. We are all hungry for meat,” she reminded her.
But most of all they were missing their mothers and wished that they were back home with them.
Molly walked back to the dejected younger sister and put her arm around her shoulder and told her gently, “Don’t worry, we will find something to eat; you’ll see. This country’s different from ours, so we gotta learn to find their bush tucker, that’s all. Come on, let’s go along now.”
Molly managed to coax Gracie out of her stubbornness and they walked briskly to where Daisy sat playing with some dry banksia nuts. She stood up when she saw them coming, and the three of them walked northwards.
The weather remained unchanged. The skies were grey and a cold wind was blowing across the bushland. It looked like more rain was coming their way. Gracie and Daisy missed their warm gabardine coats, and they longed for a meal of meat - hot damper and sweet tea. They continued north, through the wet countryside, never knowing what was waiting for them over the next hill.
The three were pacing in good style, covering the miles in an easy manner. Soon they found that they were entering a landscape dominated by clumps of grass trees. Interspersed amongst them were zamia palms and scattered here and there were a few marri, wandoo and mallee gums (Australian trees). The girls descended a hill into a stand of tall flooded river gums and paperbarks and reached the edge of a river and stared at the flowing water. They had come to a branch of the Moore River.
“How are we going to get across the river, Dgudu?” asked Daisy.
“I don’t know yet,” she replied as she began to search along the banks until she found a suitable place to cross.
“Up here,” she called out to her sisters. “We will cross over on this fence. Come on,” encouraged Molly as she tucked her dress into the waist of her bloomers. With her calico bag slung around her neck, she clung to the top strand of fence wire, while her feet were planted firmly on the bottom strand. “See, it’s strong enough to hold us,” she assured them. “Watch me and follow, come on.”
Slowly and gingerly they stepped onto the fence wire, not daring to look down at the brown flooded river below. The water swirled and splashed against their feet. They tried to shut out the sounds and sights of the gushing water and instead they concentrated on reaching the muddy bank on the other side. They were worried about their precious bags that contained all their worldly goods, which wasn’t much at all, just an extra pair of bloomers, a frock and their small mirrors, combs and a cake of Lifeboy soap. However, they made it safely.
On their second day, they came into a section of bushland that had been ravished by fire. All the trees and the grass under them was burnt black. In a few weeks’ time, however, this charcoal landscape would be revived by the rain. It would come alive and be a green wilderness again, full of beautiful flowers and animals that are wonderfully and uniquely Australian. The three girls walked in silence over the next hill where they saw a most unexpected but very welcome sight indeed. Coming towards them were two Mardu men on their way home from a hunting trip. Gracie and Daisy were so pleased to see them that they almost ran to meet them, but Molly held the girls back and whispered softly, “Wait.”
So the three girls waited for the men to come closer. When they saw the men’s catch, they drooled — a cooked kangaroo and two murrandus (big lizards). The girls were more interested in the bush tucker than in the two hunters who introduced themselves and told the girls that they were from Marble Bar.
“Where are you girls going?” asked one of the men.
“We are running away back home to Jigalong,” replied Molly.
“Well, you girls want to be careful, this country different from ours, you know,” advised the old man with white hair and a bushy white beard.
“They got a Mardu policeman, a proper cheeky fella. He flog ’em young gals runaway gals like you three,” he added very concerned for them as they were from the Pilbara too.
“Youay,” said Molly. “We heard about him at the settlement.”
“He follow runaway gals and take ’em back to the settlement. He’s a good tracker, that Mardu,” the old man told them.
“We know that, the girl from Port Hedland already told us about him,” replied Molly who was very confident that the black tracker would not be able to follow their path because all their footprints would have been washed away by the rain.
The men gave them a kangaroo tail and one of the goannas. They shook hands with the girls and turned to walk away when the younger man remembered something.
“Here, you will need these,” he said as he held up a box of matches. Then he emptied another box and filled it with salt.
The girls thanked them and said goodbye.
“Don’t forget now, go quickly. That Kimberley bloke will be looking for you right now, this time now.”
It was highly unlikely that an attempt to track them down in this weather would even be considered, but Molly wasn’t taking any chances. They would only stop when she was satisfied that it was safe to rest.
The miles they had covered should have been adequate according to Daisy and Gracie but no, their elder sister made them trudge along until dusk. Then the three young girls set about preparing a wuungku (a shelter) made from branches of trees and shrubs. They searched under the thick bushes and gathered up handfuls of dry twigs and enough leaves to start a small fire. There was no shortage of trees and bushes around their shelter as they grew in abundance; quite different from the sparse landscape of the Western Desert. Each girl carried armfuls of wood and dropped them on the ground near the fire to dry as they had decided that it was safe enough to keep the fire burning all night. They made the fire in a hole in the ground in the center of the shelter.
After a supper of kangaroo tail, goanna lizard, and the last crust of bread, washed down with rain water, they loaded more wood on the fire and slept warm and snug in the rough bush shelter around the fire.
The next morning, the girls were awakened by the sounds of birds fluttering and chirping all around them. The rain had stopped, but the wind was blowing strong and cold. The clouds were scattered about like huge balls of cotton wool and the sun was trying hard to shine through the gaps. It may have been wishful thinking on their part, but the weather looked promising.
For breakfast they ate what was left over from supper with a refreshing drink of water. When they had finished, they quickly removed the firewood that was still burning and covered it with wet sand and moved on.
Molly looked up at the sky and said confidently, “More rain coming,” pointing to the west where the white, fluffy clouds were now being pushed aside by grey rain clouds. “Never mind,” she said. “It’s good because that Mardu policeman can’t follow us now. We lose all our tracks anyhow. The rain will wash them all away.” She and her sisters were safe from capture for the time being.
“Come on, walk faster, the rain is a long way off yet,” she told them, hoping her estimation was accurate, because she wanted to be a long way away by nightfall. In this weather and in this sand plain country the girls had been covering 24 to 30 kilometers a day. They each realized that they must push on further into the wilderness, steadily covering as much ground as they could during the daylight hours. By midday, the girls were hit with pangs of hunger. Gracie was feeling very irritable and began to stamp her feet in protest and dawdled along. Suddenly she got caught in the dense, tangled scarlet runner creepers, she overbalanced and fell onto the wet ground with a thud. She lay there moaning and groaning softly to herself.
“We gunna die. We got nothing to eat.”
“Oh shut up and stop whining,” ordered Molly as she helped her up on her feet. “We gotta hurry up.”
Molly was losing patience with her younger sister. At that moment the most important thing on her mind was distance; the more land they covered in this weather, the less chance they had of being captured. Getting lost or walking around in circles may have signaled the end of their escape but Molly kept reminding them to be brave and to conquer their fears. There was little danger in this part of the country, as there were no poisonous snakes lurking about at this time of year.
Gracie withdrew into herself, refusing to talk. She just followed Molly and Daisy in a trance, eyes straight ahead, looking neither right or left, silent and sullen. Suddenly Molly shouted excitedly, “Look over there.” Shaken out of her grey mood, Gracie was interested in what her big sister had seen.
“What is it, Dgudu?” Daisy wanted to know.
Daisy and Gracie looked up to see the rabbit burrows in the sand dunes.
“We’re not sleeping in the bunna (dirt hole) again, eh Dgudu?” asked Gracie.
“No,” replied Molly. “We gunna catch them to eat.”