A vast stony plain shivers, strewn with tousled clumps of sclerolaena and dead-finish shrubs. A wall of aching, stout redgums snakes a trench of quartz and mica and gypsum through the heaving, bronzed sandstone spine of the Tjoritja. Their boughs ache with sticky, cakey bark, festered with lerps and ants, and dark with ashy charcoal. Sallow, grizzled corellas lounge on the rim of a dusty hollow, preening their scabby feathers with flaking beaks. A princess parrot clambers into a gash in the side of a tangled regum, flashing pale pink and olive against shards of heavy sunlight.
There has been no water here for a year. Mounds of sand and dust are strewn about the creek, heaped with beefwood pods and caltrop burrs. Iridomyrmex and Rhytidoponera glint emerald and turquoise as they thread between the pebbles and grass culms, carving a cricket’s carcass into littler bits as they march by. The birds are quiet today and there are no roos or dogs about.
A mass of crinkled, brittle grass heads nods about, breathing the heavy, sticky air. Buffel grass tufts, thick and stout, squat about the place, ruffled by the breeze that sighs over the stony floodplain. A lone gallah hobbles about these grasses, hoists up a stumpy claw, grabs a culm and strips it with its beak. There are no grass seeds to eat today – all are empty glumes. The sun beats down; the heat stifles even the retching cries of crows and babblers. The creek is an oven of shadowy, pendulous, brittle redgum leaves and crisp swathes of buffel grass.
A grey, foggy plume of ash rises above the tree line, mixing with the wavering mirage of heat on the sweaty horizon. Its distance is uncertain but you can taste the smoke. Then, a tangled panic of birds rises from the treeline, directionless, erratic. There is a dull roar some way up the creek, like blood-flow echoing around a shell at your ear; then, a crackling and snapping, like a fist pumping up a sheet of cellophane; then, a rush of wind and dust, and a heavy haze of orange, dirty smog engulfs the bleeding redgums. There are dull thuds of branches hitting sand, of hooves on the clay, of hollows splintering. Fledged princess parrots and ring-necks squeal, then grow silent. Then the thirsty tongues of red and orange and blue and yellow flames lick through the branches and tear at the buffel grasses and devour the canopy.
Three months on and the sandy creek-bed blooms in a carpet of freshly-shot buffel grass seedlings, growing stronger and faster than they did before. The hollows are empty. The cattle have come down to feast on the buffel grass shoots. Purple inflorescences are already bearing ripe, swollen fruit. There are no native seedlings, though – the fire was too hot, the seeds too delicate. There are no resprouting shrubs – their volatilized branches leave all but a faint, ashy silhouette on the creek’s sandy face.
Buffel grass country…