thomas m wilson

Walking Further into the Valley at Serpentine Falls

April 10th, 2009

This afternoon I organized a group of friends to go to Serpentine Falls in a national park south-east of Perth.  We were going to swim in the hot autumn weather.

It took about an hour to get there and, then, finally we entered a valley coming out of the Darling Scarp.  There was a dramatic granite face confronting us to the east further up the valley.  We were heading to a point where the water drops down over this steep rock into a deep pool.  Today is easter and a public holiday and, of course, the car park was disappointingly full.  But my dad had recently told me to climb up behind the falls to some swimming holes where you can escape the crowds.  That is exactly what we did.  There were eleven of us in total, and we made our way up the rock face indian file and then over the top.  There were a couple of pools in our high up aerie and the water was cool and refreshing.  It is a long time since I swam in fresh water – I’m always in the ocean – and so the silky feeling of having been in fresh water was a well received as I stood dripping in the sun.  Then I sat under the waterfall created where the water flowed out of a metal pipe from Serpentine Dam.  I sat in a small air pocket, beneath the water coming out above, with a friend and talked. Soon I needed to leave the group, and return to my home.  I was glad of the beautiful, wet bodies in the sun and the smiles and the presence of friendly people.  But the east was drawing me, up the twisting valley, through the trees, past the stones. I left the chatter and Das Man of the group, and moseyed along up the canyon floor.

It opened out into a valley as it went around the corner.  I looked back and saw the red stone and the blue sky and the unsullied eucalyptus canopy stretching up to the hill top horizons and felt good.  Here I was back in the dry, warm, Nyoongar haunted home of my childhood.  I could imagine a couple of first Western Australians walking around the corner with two or three gidgies (long, thin spears) over each shoulder, and their naked bodies shining with emu fat rubbed into their dark skin and a lizard tucked into a skein of possum fur wrapped around one of their waists as a belt.  This dream could have been only a handful of decades ago, and yet how very far from the brightly t-shirted and urbanized primates that lounged on the rocks back at the foot of the falls, far, far below me.  I walked forward, feeling my feet firmly on the rocks of the dry streambed.  Then I stopped, remembering that I had some new glasses in my backpack.  I got them out and put my glasses on.

All of a sudden my long-distance vision took on a clear-edged precision that made the world anew for me.  I was filled with wonder at the shapes of the valley I was walking up.  I couldn’t’ stop looking around myself in pleasure.  Soon I saw a blue-tailed bird through my binoculars, and I realized that this was a Splendid Fariy Wren.  It had a brown body, and was thus a female.  In the world of Splendid Fairy Wrens the females get a small share of aesthetic glory.  Much of the river was dry, with pools and mud here and there.  And I could smell the damp, musty clay and mud smell fill my nostrils as I stepped along stones above these areas.  I breathed it in and it was good.  Dragonflies swooped here and there.  Dragonflies are biomonitors in that their larvae are susceptible to pollutants in the environment.  If they are here it is a sign that this place is healthy.  Then bird song came shyly from the bushes to my right.  Two light green, tiny birds sped through their movements on a nearby limb.  They were Elegant Parrots, and because of how uncommon they are I was surprised to see them.  In fact I have never seen these birds before.

It took a while of walking, but finally the chatter of the group back at the pool no longer bounced along the rock surfaces to reach my ears.  A new peace and silence enveloped me.  I found a bulrush and tried to pull out the base of the stem.  Food.  It was hard work and I realized how much more useful a Nyoongar woman’s wonna, or digging stick, would have been than a Nikon SLR at that precise moment in time.  Afterwards I walked forward through bushes that had begun to crowd my path along the valley floor.  I came out of the bushes and the valley opened out and turned left.  A white-faced heron poked his sharp face into space above the boulder-filled reflections from a pool.  I walked past the pool, quietly observing him flap his wild, grey presence into the air.  I walked up along through the marri trees and over pebble beds of their nuts lying strewn on the earth.  I looked up at the western bank of the river bed: it rose up and up with two thousand million year old boulder surfaces giving way to jarrah trees and shrubs, and then like a white skeletal fenestration against the dull navy greens, a pocket of beautiful wandoo trees.  The wandoos waved their vividly white arms in the air.  Their crooked lines etched themselves into me.  I stood and looked at the king among these trees.  It was closest to me, just on the other side of the river and standing over me at the bottom of the slope.  My eyes raised up to meet its height.  Its boughs sprouted diverse angles, zigging and zagging in a frozen explosion of white wood, out into space, and with their… oh, the time. The National Park was closing its gates at five.  Five to five.  I pulled myself away from my immersion in this Australia.  I turned on my heel.  The intrusion of man-made timetables gave me an abrupt full stop.  I had to go.

It is evening now and I sit at home.  Looking back at this afternoon I see how over the past few months of reading and writing about the human and environmental history of south-western Australia, I have changed.  I walk through the arid, open, dry country of my home, past diverse lives, over the history haunted floor of the Swan coastal plan and over the granites of the Darling scarp, and I feel more and more like I belong here.  Sure, I was born here.  One of my grandfathers was one of a small handful of the first white-skinned people to be born in the western third of this southern continent.  I grew up visiting the non-urban world often with my mum and dad.  Yes, I am from Australia.  But only recently have I started to become Native.