It wasn’t called Yaamba, at least not when I first came across it. I can remember the sign clearly and events since then have branded its name as effectively as any red-hot iron ever did to the rump end of a highly suspicious cow.
‘Ramantha’. In large red neon bright foot high letters; arched over a left turn-off. They shone and flickered like coal fire flames in the dark living room on a cold Scottish winter’s endless night.
‘Ramantha’ it called in welcome!
And ‘thank-you’ I whispered under my breath, not wanting to acknowledge even to myself just how concerned I had become as kilometre after kilometre had offered up no respite from the black forbidding bush and the petrol disappearing faster than a box of Quality Street at Christmas!
I’m not sure if it was in the middle of nowhere but it certainly wasn’t particularly near anywhere I had come from, and since I didn’t really know where I was going or how far that ‘going’ was going to be, it appeared to be the perfect stop off (i.e. the only one)on route to somewhere-or-other. The fuel gauge had been bouncing between the bottom and middle horizontals on the ‘E’, when like ‘land-ahoy’ to the flotsam-clinging aimlessly adrift sailor, a light had appeared on the horizon above a sign saying “Rest, Revive, Survive”.
‘Ramantha’ was the first sign of life I had seen for almost 500 kilometres, (kamikaze kangaroos and world weary wombats excepted) and before I got my hopes up too far, I rubbed my eyes just to make sure it wasn’t a mirage. I wasn’t totally desperate, after all 30 litres of water would last for almost 6 days in the searing outback heat and I was pretty sure that should my fuel run out then a good if unwitting Samaritan was bound to travel the same rutted dirt track before my aqua vita and factor 30 sun lotion was exhausted. But when travelling through the outback, bush and desert rule number 1 is always refuel with water and fuel when you can. In fact rules 2 and 3 are the same. (Someone told me – I think it was ‘Setting Free The Bears’ – there was another rule that you shouldn’t venture into the desert in flip-flops, but I kept forgetting this one much to the delight of the salivating red-back spiders, formic acid biting black ants, and a range of snakes and poisonous toads.)
Anyway I pulled up at ‘Ramantha’, filled up with fuel and topped my spare water tank with another thirty litres, and then believe it or not things just got better and better! When I looked for somewhere to pay, the only building that showed any sign of life was a large wooden shack, silhouetted in the moon and starlight, it’s billboard proclaiming – “Cold beer, warm showers, and a bed for the night”. Being a bit of a nomad I didn’t need the bed. But the cold beer and shower sounded like I had just coughed and found a Gold Watch in my handkerchief!
She was a dark skinned, sultry barmaid; half colonial, half Maori and her name was Ramonda. That’s right Maori – not aborigine. She had come to Australia from New Zealand as she explained many dream-times before, because she had been told to in a dream. A dream that had said “the travellers need you” and now she just ran this oasis of welcome for those weary, disoriented and desperate travellers.
“Ramonda of Ramantha.” I called her.
She just smiled ; I felt as if I had just been given a blood transfusion.
I finished my schooner of beer, and asked her if there was time for another before I showered and bedded down in my van.
“Oh sure….I’m expecting another traveller tonight, so I’ll be serving until I’ve sorted him out.”
“Must be a regular to find you with any certainty in this darkness” I said
“No regulars here. Just passing trade.”
“Ah the wonders of the phone and internet”
“None of that here. But he’ll be along soon enough!”
She poured me another beer and for about ten minutes didn’t say another thing.
Before I heard anything, she got up and began to pour another beer.
A figure appeared in the doorway and with the stride of two men in came a fairly tired and dishevelled man of about 35 years of age. He was black as sable with the dark darting eyes of the Aborigine drawing in all the clues from his five or more senses and deciding that the place was danger free.
“Any rooms, missus?”
“50 bucks single. Pay in advance and leave before 10 a.m.”
“That’ll do! You new here? Never knew this place existed. Been open long?”
“Open a long time, but not always open if you get my drift. Three bucks for the beer”
She took the money and disappeared into the back room.
“This is a wind-up isn’t it,” I said to the fella.
“Don’t know what yer talkin about mate, travelling the outback, seen the lights and thought I’d stop here for a night.”
He said ‘G’night’ and beer in hand, he headed off to his room.
“He’s a foreteller of the future. He’s come here to read your and my dreams. He’ll meet you again one day. When he does, listen to what he says.”
The bats, noticeable by their quietness or absence till then, suddenly broke into a cacophony of jealous squealing and squabbling as they tried to commandeer each other’s vantage point. Ramonda went to the open door, looked up at the creatures and mumbled something sharp and admonishing. They went quiet immediately and with the beat of their wings against the still hot air took off to search for unsuspecting prey.
“They don’t like our visitor at all. Bats don’t like others to know what they’re thinking. He reads their every thought!” She said still staring skywards.
It was all too much for my state of tiredness so I didn’t explore it any further.
Her voice suddenly became very direct and personal!
“You’ll be coming back this way.”
I tried to contradict her but she just carried on.
“When you do, don’t stop here; carry on down to Hervey Bay. It was originally called the Wide bay and was the home of the very first inhabitants of this land; they understood and worked with nature to make this place a paradise. They spoke with the animals, they listened to the weather, and they watched the mountains and clouds. They tended and ate the plants and replaced the ones they consumed with newer, younger more vital ones. Life was good and balance was everywhere. Much of that has been taken away, but you have a message to pick up at the Wide bay, a message that is of great importance. It will be delivered by those who were here even before man and woman when the sun breaks the horizon on your return.
She didn’t wait on my reply, switched off the main lights, locked up the bar with the exception of the external door and went off to do whatever her night-time duties were.
I sat on my own in the half-light, finished my second schooner and assuming that tiredness was confusing me, tried to forget the conversation. Sleep won the unfair contest and that bar-chair seemed like the best posture sprung mattress in the world. This was my dream time.
It was still half-light when I left at 06.30 a.m. and there was no sign of Ramonda or the other fella. I didn’t bother to look at the sign as I drove down the road. I must have turned a bend without realising it, for as I checked my rear view mirror all I could see was shrub and desert. Ramantha was now out sight and out of mind!
Over the next 6 weeks, I forgot all about that evening.
It was about a week or so ago when crossing back from west to east by a different route, that a message was broadcast on the radio (one of the few times any signal was picked up).
“State of emergency declared in Brisbane and southern Queensland. Most of the State is designated a disaster zone due to tropical storms and cyclonic winds.”
My plans changed immediately and rather than head for Brisbane, I turned north and back to Cairns and the delights of Port Douglas.
Once the problems in the south started to lift I headed down to Brisbane and it was only as I left Marion Vale that I realised that it was the last town I remembered before the darkness had caused me to stray and I had chanced on Ramantha and Ramonda. I tried to retrace my route as best I could, and as the twilight settled in, in the distance I could see an indistinct fiery sign. I put my foot down a little, eager to find out how Ramonda knew that I would be returning, but as I approached the roadhouse, the sign this time said, “Break the drive, stay alive” and the name above the entrance said Yaamba!
I turned in anyway and entered the only building. One bloke was behind the general store counter and a couple of others were playing the pin-ball machines.
“I could kill a beer. How far to Ramantha?”
“No Ramantha around here mate, and the only beer you’ll be getting tonight is to head back to Marion vale. Nothing open for at least another 100 kilometres”
I probably appeared rude as I blanked his comments.
“Ramantha! Run by the half-Maori girl Ramonda!”
“Long time since you’ve been hear mate. That burnt down 20 years ago. 20 years wasn’t it Pete” he directed his question to a big lumber-jack shirted figure standing at the first machine.
He continued “Ramonda and some aboriginal were burnt to death. Most said it was an accident, but me I think it was the work of the third unidentified body. Never did find out just who that was. The locals won’t go anywhere near the place any more. They say it’s the gate to dream-time whatever that means”.
The coldness in my bones wasn’t one that I had ever experienced before. I didn’t feel well and I didn’t want to show my fear to the fellas in front and behind the counter. I returned to my car. It didn’t make sense and when things didn’t make sense all there was to do was to take hold of anything understandable and build the story again from a sound foundation. Hervey bay. The answer surely lay in Hervey Bay. I put my foot down, and remembering the last time glanced in my rear-view mirror.
Surprisingly, Yaamba DIDN’T disappear.
Hervey bay was deserted when I drove down its esplanade at about 22.30. I knew it was the Esplanade because that was what the lit sign had said. It was too dark and too quiet to see or hear any sounds of the mingling of the Coral Sea with the Pacific Ocean. I had to be up for Sunrise. Ramonda had said that a message would be delivered then and I wanted to be there on time, even if as I suspected nothing would happen and everyone who I had met at Yaamba and Ramantha could have a good old Oz laugh at the thick ‘pom’. What they didn’t realise of course was that I wasn’t a ‘pom’; I was a Celt and more in tune with the lay lines of ancestral jiggery pokery than they would ever know.
I didn’t believe that anything WOULD happen, but I did believe that it COULD; and I would be ready.
A bat screamed an alarm call just as the sun was about to break cover for another day along the sea and sand. I suspected that my camera would be useful and it was there, fully primed as I rose fully dressed and made my way down to the waters’ edge, just as the morning ebb-tide commenced its journey. It was Australia’s equivalent of a Glasgow December day but already the temperature had risen to the mid-seventies and the creatures of the tide line were scurrying in their thousands to commence and complete their routine before the tide changed direction. In the distance a large dark green island sat in the middle of the light blue shining ocean, its head shrouded in clouds. It seemed to be beckoning to me to approach and almost without thinking I walked one, two, three and finally four steps, my ankles submerging beneath the lapping waters and my feet sinking slightly into the fluid grains.
It wasn’t the mountain this time, but a voice to my right. I turned and partially blinded by the rising sun the figure appeared large and dark.
“Far Enough” the man’s voice said. “She does not want you to go any further”
“What are you rabbiting on about? It’s a flippin Island not a woman!”
“She is Mother Nature, and she knew you were coming, just as Ramonda said you would. She is Ramantha! And at her bidding a message will be delivered to you.”
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded
“I am just a traveller who saw the light and came to read your dreams” he said.
I felt a bit queasy and stared for a moment at my feet as I felt my balance become a little unsteady.
I chanced my luck and asked.
“Who burnt you? Who killed you and Ramonda? What am I to do with the message? I’m nothing special, why me?”
I felt his breath whispering in my ear but the reply was muffled by the gull’s call.
“Say it again” I demanded as I turned.
The sun again caused me to squint but there was no one there.
“You didn’t answer me. I don’t know what the message is. Don’t disappear and leave me again”
Only the rustle of leaves from the mangrove answered; and then like a whisper in the silence of the universe I heard a scurrying on the ground. I stared again at the sand where he had stood and in the fast disappearing imprint of shoeless feet, a little sand spider dug its way from the depths of the beach and with the aid of that sand, the sea, the shells, the wind and the timeless power of mystery it left a message in the sand.
At first it was no more than a scrape, a skelf on Shaun maloney’s erse sort of thing as he pondered a full wage packet and an empty heart….
And then it got just that wee bit more sophisticated, a bit like the learning of the primordial soup
Penultimately this appeared, at first I thought it was the pinnacle