When you ought to be wearing glasses, strange forebodings and wishful thinking lie over hard geography like a vapour. The senses do what they can, but the head wins every time exploiting the opportunity to make a fiction of the fogbound world.
Over the bay from where we lived, on the crest of a hill lay an empty field of startling and lush green. It had no purpose but to make me sigh heavily as it swam before my eyes. Every morning, grinding my teeth I walked to school with a tantalizing vision of the Lost World before me; Northbridge Golf Course. I never did go there, in truth I didn’t even learn it was a golf course until much later. We left Sydney too soon for me to explore…and we sailed north, where, as the coast crept by, a new Xanadu hove into sight; the islands of the Capricorn coast.
Seeing land come up slowly from the sea is immensely evocative. From a distance, the shapes of the hills do not seem solid yet, more like sections of blue cellophane, darker where the landforms fold and intersect. The Duke group was hanging on the horizon, full of promise. Everything was out there just waiting to happen. But sail boats are slow and progress seems to be counted in inches when the destination is in sight. A dozen possible adventure scenarios hatched in my head during the hours between landfall and arrival.
Arriving at Marble Island in the late afternoon we let the anchor down in the lee of the island’s lofty hills, along with a great quantity of chain. A notorious six meter tide scoured this region, pouring through the channels between the islands. There was a sense of precariousness about the anchorage, the sweeping volume of water and uneasy currents. It was a place to visit briefly and then move on. However, I was full of anticipation and wanting to explore in detail.
We hurried ashore to make use of the remaining daylight and headed for the only habitation; a small cattle station. The current caretakers welcomed us warmly and all the grownups quickly settled in to talk; isolation it seems creates an appetite for conversation. Stories were exchanged, one still with me, was of the tragic death of two women on the island; both were wives to a previous caretaker. The first wife had fallen from the island’s marble cliff in a horse riding accident, and the second had drowned while rowing a small boat in the same bay we had just anchored in. As the conversation went back and forth, I saw my chance and sidled outside to look around.
The light was ebbing quickly and while my eyesight was never good, there is something about twilight in the tropics that makes the evening light seem even denser. The wind dropped and the air was somehow thickened with humidity and the rank sweetness of vegetation. I walked out in no particular direction and climbed over and under the fences. Crossing the dusty ground and feeling my way in bare feet, gathering nearsighted impressions as I went.
A few seconds of heavy drumming was the only warning I had, of the approach of an animal. Even in this dim light, I instantly registered the shape of a bull. His hide was jet black crowned with pale crescent horns over a low and swinging head. He propped only a few metres from me; a surprise that might as well have dropped from the sky. I turned and ran like a jack rabbit to the closest fence, scrambling through with the bull right behind me. Wide eyed, I made my way back to the house, sticking to the fence line for security as there may have been other things the size of small cars that I missed.
The caretaker couple saw us off with a gift, a large bag of limes. It was dark as we dragged the tender over the wide shelf of reef and rocks which fringed the bay and then rowed back to the Rosa-M. Onboard we drank hot and sugary lime juice of which I had more than was good for me. Sick perhaps, but there would be no scurvy here.
We made way early the next morning and were already some way off the island when I woke. The anchor chain had grumbled all night, telegraphing into my cabin the shape of the rocks below. I squinted as the island receding into the distance, the sun shining golden onto the face of the marble cliff, warm drifting skeins of colour over a cloudy sea. It looked like some kind of paradise, a postcard version of itself, the fabled realm of Myopia.