Excerpt from The Man In The Jungle

The extracts are taken from Chapter 6, entitled “The Scoop”, and Chapter 4, entitled “The Convict’s Find”.

David Rowbotham: The Man In The Jungle (A&R, London & Sydney, 1964)

Epigraph

“At the gates of the forest the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish…” – Emerson

6. THE SCOOP

i.

Early morning rose in the forest, drab grey whispering into dark green.

It rose like a cloud gathering itself from the jungle floor, smokily, the night smouldering out beneath it to give it its emergence in a sunless mist of muggy warmth, and soundlessness. The bush creatures, if awakened, were sleepily lying in.

At first there was only the slow, soft seething of water moving in fern-walled streams, or dropping down from the soaked summits of the trees on to rocks and leaves among roots and undergrowth. Then vines and bushes seemed to breathe and stir and, in stirring, seemed to take on strange forms because of the creeping coils and carpets of mist that they met and moulded.

To Morden, as he opened his eyes in a haziness, this insinuation of the dawnlight came as a sort of hesitating restoration. He was faintly aware of uneasy movements, and of a spot of dull pain in his nose; but all that counted for the moment was the tranquillity, the peace to which he grew out of his unconsciousness. It was as though a misty quality of new light, a new dawn, had grown with him out of a black past that he could not remember.

He did, however, remember and recognise the jungle. He heard its water on the rocks and leaves and he breathed its steaminess; but now his lassitude seemed to protect him from his surroundings, just as it prevented him from remembering what had gone before, what had led to his annihilation. He would have to remember soon. In the meantime: rest, laziness, and the touch of dawn…and voices?

“Morning, laddie.”

Morden heard the words clearly. But he could not answer; he was too deliciously slothful, like someone after a long sleep from which the body shifts refreshed but unhurried, the mind cool and calm but backward. Yet the character of the words reminded him of someone he had known in the past.

After a while he realised who it was; and this, along with the idea that he felt fresh and easy only because he had been through some crucial experience or illness, brought all memory back with a bolt of shock. The relaxed center in the back of his head snapped to attention with a click and he jerked into a sitting position. He stretched his arms rigidly behind him and his finger-nails dug into dirt. The pain returned acutely to his nose, his eyes opened widely, and his speech came explosively.

“How did he get that rifle!”

Now he saw the faces. He saw them so plainly that they might have been magnified by some strange lens-like effect of the grey mist and the green forest. He touched his nose; it was covered with cotton-wool and sticking-plaster.

“How did he get it!”

“Now take it easy.”

Packs’ voice was firm, yet anxious.

“Tell me, damn you!”

The shock that had driven him upright disappeared; the fierceness in him seemed to fracture itself. He collapsed back on a hard support of rock standing out of the ground like a low-leaning, solid board. Swivelling his head, he traced out the shape of a caved-in hut among nearby trees, and, just beyond, the outline of what seemed to be a bending cross between two close tree-trunks. An ironical amusement rippled somewhere in him; he was at the Convict’s Find again. Last night he had come blindly back to it. A little more blind accuracy and he could have done his praying at the cross!

“Hullo. Got here as quick as we could.”

That was Jim. The kind aboriginal face with its apprehensive eyes was lowered towards him, and there was Packs’ broad brow under the ambulance cap. And there, to one side of them, was Milligan, looking edgy, disgruntled; and Cam Richmond with his moustache hiding his phlegmatic mouth.

He knew they were all friends, that their being there was just what he needed to reassure him, to give him relief, even freedom, from the feeling that what he had been through had put him in a lonely territory of grim illusion from which there was no return. They rescued him from isolation; he was back.#

4. “The Convict’s Find”

iii.

After Morden’s astonishment had died down a little, the sight of the cross became the most resolving thing that had so far happened to him. As soon as he began to believe in it, in its existence, substance, shape, as he touched its squalid enduring wood, he also began to believe that everything unseen, unknown or inconceivable, was at last taking on a definite form, tangible and true. Too true. Everything at last was possible, probable.

Much less bewildering than a huddle of ants, a mutilated boar, a tracker with his throat cut, the cross was an acceptable permanent fact. It leaned about three feet out of the ground between two close trees whose roots must have flourished in the grave beneath. The trees, sapping the earth around it, had kept it free of vines, creepers, the consumption of scrub.

Morden saw its stark simplicity as a sane significant link between all that was weirdly primitive and unreal, and what was civilised. He felt that, after all, he was not so hopelessly and helplessly shut off from things that were familiar and understandable, even though there was small comfort in the thought that here probably lay the remains of a miner of the Convict’s Find, a miner who, entering the forest, had never walked out of it.

He guessed, as he stood beside Jim looking at the grave, that the old gold settlement or its ruins must be somewhere near. The trees, more than the mine shaft into which he had fallen,seemed to be evidence of this. Mine shafts could be anywhere, scattered widely from the real centre of the Find; and, according to Packs, popular fancy and the caution of bushmen in the jungle country, they were anywhere. But a cross could mean a centre. There could easily be more crosses, more graves, in the area. He and Jim might actually be standing on the burial ground of the Convict’s Find.

The two of them strode forward into the bushes. They searched and fossicked for some time, without success. Morden was just about ready to admit he had been wrong, that the grave was an isolated one, belonging to some prospector who had died and been buried in a spot away from the settlement. But Jim, who had wandered off, suddenly called to him.

“Mr Morden!”

Morden joined the tracker.

Jim was stirring a slight regular-looking depression of earth and grass with his boot. The depression would not have been recognisable as a grave, but Jim had stirred up some bones covered with mud and granulated by age and rot. Human bones. Morden would have sworn to it. Over perhaps a century, they had been shoved up frm their shallow bed by that ghoulish habit that time and the earth had of laying bare what was buried, or of burying what had lain bare.

With this new discovery they became gradually, then rapidly aware of other signs around them. It was as though, to a couple of knocks, the forest had opened its doors of concealment, revealing what it had till then hidden camouflaged under their noses. All at once there were shapes in the trees, design in the ground, among a tangle of undergrowth, foliage, vine, bushes.

“Good God!” Morden exclaimed, moving forward, pushing aside branches, heading for clearer spaces which now became apparent.

“This is it!”

He was genuinely amazed that his surmise had turned out to be correct.

“What.”

“The Convict’s Find.”

“Huh.”

What he saw was jumbled, decayed, in the last stages of obliteration. But he knew that here, once, had been a miniature town.

The streets, hacked out of the forest, had vanished under parasitic vine, weed and fungus. But beneath the grass were wooden and earthen floors, and behind the bloated meshes of creepers were some huddles of what originally would have been huts and cottages. Disused shafts, with iron rollers and rotting sprags and ropes, were sinking in their final throes into the earth, weighted by the grasses and years that had piled on them since the days when, worked out, the settlement had been deserted.

Where the horse-walks had been, remnants of skew rail fences ending in split or twisted cross-saplings ran from the shafts. A rawhide bucket under a lean-to that looked more like a gunyah rested shapeless on its side. A forsaken miner’s dollypot lay buried in the grass. Centipedes squirmed away from beneath an old bark stretcher that he and Jim overturned. Climbing roses, planted beside a miner’s hut, now consumed the space where, among his scanty bush-made furniture, his pots, pans and shovels, the digger once sat down to his meal of beef or mutton, wheaten flour, vegetables and tea.

In one place the decayed huts and buildings stood so close together that the vines climbed from roof to roof. The way in which the huts ran gave an indication of a street pattern. Along this way, before it became a street, when it was merely a patch in the jungle, had probably walked those very first ‘settlers’, the dozen or so survivors of the band of fortune and freedom hunters who, seeking the Convict’s Find, had undertaken their long trek from Port Jackson.

For a moment Morden thought of them, picturing them: desperate little spirits walking their island-continent more than a hundred years ago, plagued by starvation, thirst, fever, attacks from the tribes. Underdogs: former felons, ticket-of-leavers, and their women, all haunted by the Government arrow.

With those who followed, they had blazed the northern inland trail. They, or their descendants, when the gold ran out had withdrawn along this street, and along their forest track now grown over, to become pioneers in the Formartin grazing lands.

And a poor addle-pated convict started it all! An unprivileged bit of scum condemned to transportation by a stern-wigged English justice, perhaps for no larger crime than stealing a loaf of bread! What had been his name, that nameless man, who had wandered into the forest and wandered out again, clutching his nugget of gold? And then returned to Port Jackson and his Governor, and his end in solitary confinement.

Years afterwards, into the corner of closed-up ground where Morden now stood, the drays had probably been taken. And trailing along behind had come the penal-colony expirees, the Old World refugees, the renegades, desperadoes, all to make their fortune, to dig a renewal of their lives out of the forest floor. Many of them had dug their own graves. Now their old jungle El Dorado gave refuge only to an ageless maniac, the Swede, with a kettle of gold.

* This book was originally called The Forest Takes Forever, and published by Angus & Robertson, London and Sydney, 1964