You know when the skin prickles on the back of your neck...
Do you believe in forbidden places? Areas where the ancestral cultural taboo is so strong, you immediately know you have no right to trespass?
Taylor (The Kid) and I accidentally ventured into one this week, and it was… well, frankly, terrifying.
We took my Dad and Mum out for a lovely paddle-wheeler cruise on the Murray as a surprise early 80th birthday present for Dad.
It was a wonderful day full of sunshine, making memories, and good food. Oh, and brainstorming a new book (hint, think paddle-wheelers and food!)
Homemade banana jewel bread, scotch eggs with mustard pickle relish, and bakewell tarts
With Taylor in the driver’s seat, we started to wend our way the forty kilometres from the family farm to our home in the Adelaide Hills through the familiar dirt backroads. However, as it was 7.00 pm, that time of beautiful soft gloaming, Tay suggested we take a few different roads. We often do this, relying on a sense of direction to eventually get us home.
As always, the Big Sky country was stunning. After winding up some steep dirt tracks and stopping to exclaim over countless kangaroos (seriously, mobs live on the farm, yet still we ooh and ah like tourists EVERY time we see them!) we came to a cross road we had never before noticed.
Ever the voice of parental sensibility, I said we should probably take the road that led in the general direction of home. However, Taylor urged we keep exploring as we had discovered vistas beyond our imagination, views that no photograph could do justice. So we took a turn to the north, following a ridge of hills where the soft velvet tones of twilight made the depths of the Bremer Valley on our left misty and beautiful, whilst bright sunlight flooded the endless plains of the Murray Valley, stretching out of sight far below on our right.
It was indescribably lovely. Beautiful, centuries-old gum trees occasionally arched over the dusty road as it wound along the ridge top. Everywhere we turned there was another tumble of massive granite boulders or craggy, cliff-like outcrops. Long, low-grazed paddocks sloped serenely into valleys where stone ruins stole the last warmth of the sun. Farms boasted a cheery, story-book mix of alpacas, cows, and multi-coloured lambs, frolicking beneath the lazily wheeling eagles.
So lovely, that we decided to meander along the road to the end and eventually find a road heading west, toward home in the Adelaide Hills. We were gluttons, sating our senses with the unspoiled views, filling our souls with the purity and serenity of a landscape blessed, rather than ravaged, by time.
Eventually, the road narrowed and headed into another valley.
Instantly, this felt different. It was beautiful; undeniably so, with a steep hill on one side of us dotted with boulders, and a valley falling to our right thickly veined by a line of giant gums clinging to a rare watercourse.
Yet I felt uneasy. Taylor’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, and we stopped chatting and laughing. We no longer looked for wildlife or exclaimed over the views. The further we travelled, the heavier the feeling became.
‘Drive a little faster, it’ll be twilight soon,’ I urged.
Taylor nodded and sped up.
And the sense of trespass became worse. Not malevolent; just a very deep knowledge that, despite the road, we had no right to be there. We drove through a small valley, still in the sunlight, then topped another hill. On our right was an almost sheer drop into a steep gully. In front, impossibly far below along the winding road, a house. Through a gap between the hills across the valley we could see the far-distant Murray Basin, patchworked in summer’s green and gold.
Although the view was inarguably magnificent, I stopped photographing. As we started to descend into the valley, I couldn’t control the sense of foreboding that tightened my chest and made me grip the seatbelt. Something—someone—watched. So many eyes. And they wanted us gone. We were not permitted to trespass even a metre further.
The dread suddenly overwhelming, I barked “Turn around here!’
Previously, each time I’d suggested we should turn for home, Taylor had refused, pointing out the perfection of the scenery, the time of day, the weather. This time she simply said ‘Yes,’ and slammed on the brakes.
The narrow pass I intuitively knew we mustn’t breach was treacherous, a steep incline on the left and a drop-away on the right, each side of the track mounded with road rubble. Taylor quickly executed the first leg of what would necessarily be a five-point turn, facing the car into the gorge. Then she slammed the gearbox into reverse and accelerated.
The wheels spun. We didn’t move.
‘Shove your foot down,’ I gasped, ‘We’re going to get bogged.’
Yet, deep down, that wasn’t what I was afraid of. I knew we should have stopped earlier: that, despite the house further down in the valley, we had no right to be there.
Taylor took her foot off the brake and accelerated – yet the car started rolling forward, into the sucking billow of darkness in the shadowed gorge far below.
‘Harder!’ I yelled, the fear thick, a suffocating presence filling the car.
But it wasn’t fear of the car plunging down the steep decline, but of something far more intangible. Far more ancient.
The tyres spun, the engine roared. For long seconds we hung there, before the rubber suddenly found traction, scooting us back onto the track and levelling out the nose of the car.
Taylor quickly completed the turn, and we drove back the way we had come. Fast. Still daylight, still safe in our vehicle; yet we now carried an uninvited passenger: dread.
Eyes on the road as though we could will the kilometres to pass more swiftly, neither of us spoke until, as though we had crossed some invisible demarcation line, we instantly felt safe. At exactly the same moment we let out pent breaths, laughing a little shakily. The sherbet streaks of sunset lit the endless Murray Valley to our left, the last of the lowering sun bathed the Adelaide Hills in apricot to the west, and once again everything was light and fun and enjoyable.
But we never should have taken that last track.
I cannot understand how anyone lives in the house at the bottom of that valley. Because, as much as both Taylor and I have a deep sense of ancestral belonging to the family farm, a feeling which places our right to be there long before my family’s tenure, we instinctively knew that this place was taboo. There is deep, ancient power there, something that belongs beyond our measure of time, and we were trespassers.
As we drove into the familiar embrace of summer twilight, we briefly discussed the notion of exploring the track in the middle of the day, when there were no lengthening shadows, and we couldn’t imagine a fear of the encroaching night.
Except we know that imagination played no part. And we realise how wrong it would be to return. We had been given a warning. A subtle, yet terrifying reminder to respect that we are visitors to this ancient land and, while we are welcome to share much, some places are simply not for us.