Ken lay awake, content in his sleeping bag, and thought about how this short journey was beginning to end. He imagined boarding the plane tomorrow and how the inflight procedures were identical to the ones he witnessed on his way out here, but would now feel in reverse, as if all that had been built, the friendships made and landforms experienced, were being unravelled. He would arrive at the airport early, he thought, putting on his beanie, and sit at a bench and try to summarise his last twelve days on paper. He knew this trip was not about details. Twelve days was not long enough to get a feel for the subtleties of Alice Springs, the West Macdonnell Ranges and Uluru. It was too late to learn even a single word of the Arrente language, he told himself, but he’d be better prepared next time, if there was a next time. In less than twenty four hours the plane would taxi to the take off position and a baby would be screaming and the professionals would be reading, and he’d remember a critical comment a hiker made that allowed him to realise that when you spend most of your time traveling you rarely spend long enough with anyone to see the nasty side of their character. Lying on his back on the inflatable mattress that had developed a slow leak, Ken looked up at the stars and the tops of the ghost gums and the outline of the gorge falling to the sandy riverbank where he lay, and he thought to himself that we allow ourselves to roam where nothing is sacred, that we’re afraid of going to sacred places for fear of spoiling them with our presence and that it’s better to have been to a sacred place without knowing it is sacred, that the landform is merely a landform where no rituals and stories had taken place. That way you avoid being culpable of destroying the magic of the place. The rituals we do hear about, Ken repeated to himself, tell an ancient story of ownership through having lived there, and you cannot know the stories that make these places unless you live there for a long time.
A kind of interloper, Ken concluded he did not have knowledge enough of these stories to respect the places as they should be respected. He longed to be given the truth of the situation, instead of having to determine that truth for himself, for then he felt he could understand clearly what was the admirable way to behave and the best possible way to look after the land. As he lay out in the open this ambiguity kept him awake and he knew that he never fell asleep on his back and that he might sleep for an hour or so on tomorrow’s flight home.
Ken’s thoughts, as always, were about the next day, the next passage that awaited him and as he watched the flight path of a plane overhead he imagined himself the next day reading the inflight magazine with the grey kangaroo on the front and he would read through from cover to cover the mining advertisements and the articles about miners and then he would look out the scratched window overlooking Alice Springs and know he’d been down there somewhere and that when he was there he could not see the shape of the river as it cascaded between the ridges and conglomerates and he could not know, as he later read, that no water had flowed there for hundreds of centuries when the entire region was submerged in salt water. Now when the rains fell only puddles formed on the surface of the riverbed and a subterranean stream may trickle slowly on top of the cap rock. Ken pulled his sleeping bag upwards to allow his body enough space to rotate so he could lay on his side and the mattress made a crinkling sound and then he sensed movement under him and he sat up and saw in the depression he had dug where his canister stove sat, the sand turning to a darker colour. He knew water was rising all around him and at first he thought of collecting his belongings and moving to higher ground, the liquid now filling the spaces between the ridges of his mattress, yet he could still feel the ground firm underneath him. He unzipped the sleeping bag and pulled his legs up to his chest to remove his feet and he threw the sleeping bag on top of a large boulder nearby, and at first he was scared but he soon realised the water was not flowing downstream but coming straight up out of the earth and now the mattress was holding his weight and keeping him just below the surface of the rising water. Leaves and twigs circled around him and his empty water bottle, shoes and headlight floated nearby. With his legs in the water and his lower half now soaked Ken grabbed the headlight and pressed the on button and looked below as his feet could no longer touch the ground he could see the groundsheet held down with rocks. In the opening of his backpack he shone the torchlight on his notebooks and at first he was sad to see that they were now ruined, saturated with clouds of blue ink spiraling to the surface. He knew the notes for his stories were now ruined, and a condensed sense of the effort he put into compiling them now struck him, and he winced and shook his head in disappointment, and from the surface of the water he collected his small lighter and put it in the fold of his beanie to dry. A whining from a dingo could be heard and Ken made no hissing noises to stop her.