Gold & poppies

Gold & poppies

A Story by Gar Avoch

This short story was initially written a long time ago. It's based on real happenings which I experienced via dream. Dreams are links to reality at times but despite the parallel with truth there are often vast differences. Watch out for the film


      Winter 1969, the air was heavy with several degrees of frost. Sunlight had yet to slide into the valleys, although the craggy quartzite pinnacles lining the western horizon were tipped with sunrise yellowed orange, behind which a mauve sky held a single wisp of pink cirrus. It was too cold for fossicking, so keeping my hands in my pockets for warmth, I followed the shallow mallee covered valley toward the east. The dark craggy spire of the cockscomb seemed to extend in height as I drew nearer, pausing nearby, to watch intrigued as sunlight raced down the eighty metres from it's heights to it's base within a minute or so. Quite suddenly the valley about me was filled with sunlight and at last a faint trace of warmth.

      Being a Sunday, I didn't have to work at geologically mapping and searching the area of ancient basement rocks around Mt. Painter and the nearby Adelaidean meta-sediments, for copper and uranium. Days off were spent walking about, collecting specimens of various exotic minerals, which abounded in the area. I enjoyed the walk up the gentle rise of the Yudnamutana valley, which served to warm me against the frostiness of the air. At the head of the valley I climbed over a jaspery outcropping of a feruginised fault zone, or 'fubarite' as we termed it, down a steep slope and into a small creekbed which led into the wider Yudnamutana creekbed itself.

      Three miles later I started to wander around a small valley, ringed with sheer cliffs and rocky, fan-shaped talus slopes, near an isolated copper mine named the Wheal Frost. In the late 1880's several adits had been driven into the side of a mountain by Welsh miners, in an attempt to intersect a band of rock which had shown a large amount of green malachite staining on the surface. Unfortunately for the miners, it took only a tiny amount of copper carbonate to produce enough green colour to stain a mountain side, and little ore was ever found at this particular location. Further up the valley, along a pebbly stream bed, on a small raised flood plain, almost an island splitting the course of the dry creekbed, I came across what I took to be shallow alluvial diggings. They were initially hard to see in the jumbled rocky scrub and spinifex, but once noticed the evidence of small pits was unmistakeable. As they seemed far too shallow to go through the actual stream gravel itself, into the bedrock, I could only assume them to be old alluvial gold diggings. That was unlikely as I had never heard of any gold being found in the area at all, it was simply the wrong geological environment.

      Later that evening after a delicious meal of rabbit, well roasted with potatoes, vegetables and basted with a thick, rich gravy, I asked my co-worker Malcolm whether he knew of any such diggings nearby. He said he'd never heard of gold being found anywhere within fifty miles of this area in the northern Flinders Ranges of South Australia, but quickly got out his copy of a book written by H.Y.L. Brown in 1908. Mr Brown was the Government Geologist of his time and surveyed almost every mine in the entire state of South Australia. It was indeed an extensive and comprehensive study and surprisingly, the tiny pits were indeed mentioned. They were listed as alluvial gold diggings and said to be quite old at the time of the survey. H.Y.L. Brown even went so far as to suggest that perhaps Chinese gold miners had travelled up to this remote area before it had been settled by early pastoralists. I fell asleep quickly that night, due no doubt to the heavy meal and the long walk I had undertaken during the day.


      The small ship tossed with a pitching motion, throwing the passengers cramped beneath decks into one another. The smell of unwashed bodies and vomit was momentarily blown from my face as I unlatched a small wooden porthole in an attempt to obtain some fresh air. My effort was rewarded by several pints of icy salt water washing over me as the ship ploughed down through another heavy swell.

      "Tamo," I heard gruffly from behind. "Shut that bloody porthole 'afore ye sinks us. Captain wants t' talk to ye!"

      I jammed the porthole shut with a hard crash, to be sure it closed far enough for the clips to be worked in to prevent it opening again, before turning to see the Mate framed in the light of the lantern he held. I weaved my way toward the man, using the roll of the ship to dodge through the haphazardly sprawled bodies in the dim light.

      "Follow me," he muttered, turning to move off, the wet salt spray shone silver on his oilskin in the reflected light of the lamp. I followed him up the slippery, flat steps and onto the deck and tried to stay close behind, ignoring the cold bite of the wind, which penetrated my thin cotton clothes as if they were non-existent. Sheets of icy spray sleeted, wind blown, across the deck, stinging like needles, as the bow of the vessel plunged down the face of one huge wave and buried itself into the next. I staggered to maintain my balance as the vessel lurched violently and stumbled against a lashed down tarpaulin covering one of the long boats. I was almost thrown off my feet in the darkness, for the light afforded me was very faint as the Mate was using his lantern to see forward, leaving only shifting shadows in which to find my way.

      I dropped willingly into the hard wooden chair in the Captain's cabin as the Mate instructed gruffly. I shivered as salt water dripped from my clothes and watched the little pools forming about my slippered feet on the rough wooden floorboards. I relaxed my body to prevent a rising shiver from further manifesting itself .

      'It is not so cold,' I thought remembering my youth. 'This is not cold at all.'

      I looked up as the Captain spoke. "You can tell the passengers Tamo," he began. "They'll be landed in the morning, just before first light. Have them pack their belongings and be ready, you'll row in as one of the crew and may go ashore with the passengers. You'll be free then."

      'Free,' though Tamo, his indignation threatening to surface as both words and actions. 'How can I be free, with my wife and children half a world away.'

      He resisted the urge to speak his feeling as futile, resulting only in his being beaten or possibly even killed and simply nodded acquiescence to the Captain's request. He held the Captain's gaze and watched the man's ruddy face, framed in the lamplight. As the Man continued speaking, Tamo could sense powerful undertones and a confidence in the man's voice, such as he had noted in their previous talks.

      "None of your demise is of my making Tamo," the Captain added, displaying two upheld, empty hands to express his innocence, sounding almost apologetic for the first time since Tamo's waking up to find himself shanghaied. "I have simply been following orders myself. Your plight is unfortunate, but at least you are still alive. Be thankful for that."

      'He's keeping something from me,' thought Tamo, immediately sensing something in the placating tone the man used to express the incongruous burst of sympathy. 'It must be something about my release tomorrow, perhaps the release will be simply for the Captain and I will be passed from one form of bondage to another.'

      Part of my duties, since being carried unconscious aboard the ship near the port of Shanghai, had been to act as an interpreter, since I spoke English well enough to get by. I was oft' times used by the Captain and the ship's officers to communicate their wishes to the so-called paying passengers. These were refugees from China for the most part and although many of them spoke dialects I couldn't understand, there always seemed to be someone who could translate from the Mandarin I spoke into the tongues I could not. I was also expected to scrub decks, sew netting, splice rope and the like, not minding any of these, as at least they gave me time above decks. Far more time in the fresh air than the wretched passengers, who were confined in the dark and unpleasant conditions below. Despite the poor diet, it seemed I would arrive in Australia in quite good physical condition, if a bit on the thin side.

      I passed on the Captain's message to the passengers and found their reaction at the immanent ending of their seemingly endless journey to be heartening, despite the fact I had a lingering feeling that some treachery was in store, at least for myself. I spoke to no-one else of this foreboding, for it seemed the passengers, who had endured several months of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, had been quick to forget all their former misery and swap it for elation. They chattered about the future, overjoyed at the prospect of leaving the dank confines of below decks and exchanging the ever moving splintery floors for the solidity and solidarity of dry land and a chance at riches in the newly discovered Australian goldfields.

      All about, as the news I had imparted flew quickly from mouth to mouth in varying dialects and language subgroups, people began to arrange and pack their meagre possessions. An air of hope and expectancy had surfaced in at least all the conversations I could understand. My thoughts flew to the Temple where I had trained in my youth as a warrior priest, where an inward discipline had been instilled to forge my will. Because of this, even when my plight was dire, my inner strength allowed me to not only hope, but know that I would yet triumph over the adversity which beset me. I tried to see beyond the men who had enforced their will on me and make allowances for the zeal with which they seemed to carry out their harsh orders. I had thoughts also of my wife and children back in China, but dwelt not on them overlong.

      'How are they,' I wondered briefly, allowing my otherwise steel discipline to bend with the memory. 'They will prosper, even without me, for Soo Lin's family is large and strong and they will help with the children.' Throughout the voyage, despite the poor conditions and the ill will I had been treated with, I had for a time kept up hope that I would eventually be able to escape and return to my family in China. At that point in time, with my immanent departure, I didn't seem positive of being able to do so. I couldn't believe I would be freed when reaching land, despite the Captain's assurance. With the death of my employer in Shanghai I had lost face as it had been my task to maintain the man's life even at the giving of my own. To have failed in my duty and to be still alive was a bad thing by the standards I had been trained. When one was raised to a high position such as a warrior priest, one simply must perform one's duty. Yet suicide seemed pointless when I had already failed and the fact that I was now half a world away seemed almost to negate the feelings which would have been unbearable had I been still in China.

      'My death would accomplish nothing,' I thought. 'Returning to China is perhaps not an option any longer. If I can escape, I can go with these others and mine for gold. If I find any I can send it back to China to make life easier for Soo Lin and my children.' Even then I thought this was an overly optimistic view and events would likely lead me in other directions not yet imagined. I had heard that the goldfields lay but a few weeks travel to the east from the port of Robe in South Australia where we were to be dropped.

      Looking about, it was obvious that many of those aboard the ship had been criminals in China who had used illegal methods to gain the high price of being smuggled into this new country.

*      *

      The Corporal sat his horse patiently in the cold damp wind on the cold dark beach, thankful at least the rain had stopped for the present. He was awaiting yet another boatload of illegal Chinese refugees, his men, twenty in all, had been huddled around a small hidden fire until their lookout atop the cliffs had spied the light of a ship out to sea. Now the men were spread the length of the beach and he was looking forward to a hot breakfast in Robe after the would be immigrants were locked safely behind the sturdy bars of a jail cell.

      The windswept clouds scudded eastward, clearing the thin sliver of a recently risen moon. As it's pale silvery light spread across the roiling seas, it split into a myriad of reflections, amidst which the dark silhouette of a ship lay visible. It's sails were reefed and it was likely anchored, even now dispensing it's illegal human cargo. As his eyes adjusted to the pale light he made out the thin lines of two longboats which bobbed momentarily up into sight and then just as quickly dropped back behind a swell which rose up to break on the reefs and sandbars which framed the calmer waters closer to shore.

      As we rowed toward the shore, heeding the calls of the bowman and pulling hard on our oars to avoid rocks, which flashed past like dark, jagged teeth, I listened to the curses of the sailors. They cursed the rocks, the waves, the night's darkness and the load of chinks for whom they so unwillingly found themselves risking their lives. I was just wondering whether they would speak so if they knew I could understand them, when a piece of banter flew to my ears and chilled me more than the wild wind which whipped about constantly.

      "Poor b******s," said one of the rowers behind me. "Soldiers'll be waitin' on the beach for 'em. They'll be in the cells before the sun rises."

      Several of the rowers laughed uneasily, finding some solace in the fact that those responsible for this dark and dangerous foray were soon to be arrested, as if it mitigated the risk they were taking somewhat. I stood up and continued to pull on the oar, searching the impenetrable blackness ahead for the beach. At first I could see only the faint whiteness of the waves ahead as they broke and crashed down noisily but then as the dim moonlight strengthened somewhat, I thought I could see a thin ribbon of pale sand beyond the waves as they broke away from us.

      I felt large wave rising up from behind, lifting the boat as it reared. Initially the longboat began to slip violently sideways, then I felt the rudder man react as the steering oar started to lessen the slewing. The sailor on the rudder was seeking to ride the wave in as close to the shore as possible, speeding up the trip and hoarding some of the rower's strength for the return journey. I added a push with my legs to the sharp turning of the boat and was flung upwards and out, overboard and crashing moments later, with an icy shock, into the freezing embrace of the churning sea. My bundle, sealed well and of waxed cotton, popped me to the surface after a few seconds and I was relieved not have crashed into a rocky bottom, finding the water too deep for my extended legs to locate. The boat was already out of sight behind the back of the wall of water it had caught and I could see white trailers of foam lining the back of the wave's upper surface.

      The moonlight, though still faint had picked a good time to appear. From my low vantage point I could no longer see the beach, but I could see some dark, looming shapes close by, the jagged silhouettes of sharp and wicked looking rocks. I splashed toward them, not waiting to be caught by the next violent wave which would soon crash down upon me. My hands grasped sharp barnacle encrusted rocks as the next wave broke. Hanging on was only possible because of the way the rock itself broke most of the wave's force and still I was cut and scratched as I scrabbled for purchase continually having to readjust my tenuous grip. I was bleeding from numerous cuts and grazes before I managed to wedge myself into a narrow crack and inch my way upwards.

      Several more waves crashed over me during this process, threatening to dislodge me. Within a few minutes I had managed to scramble high enough so that only spray from the crashing surf reached me. I watched from my cold wet perch as the last streamers of thin cloud swept clear of the timid new moon and saw the faint, shadowy forms of soldiers moving about the beach, herding their captives. By the time the last prisoners were rounded up and marched through the dunes at the back of the beach, the morning light was starting to bring the rugged coastline to life. I was amazed at how tortured the rocks looked and how jagged, thinking at that moment I had certainly been lucky to have escaped with so few cuts and scratches.

      As I had spent much of my childhood swimming in the swollen yellow river, the short distance to the beach held no fears for me at all. I swam it easily and, keeping low, began to move away from the sea, to where the sand hills and their covering of low scrub offered a hiding place. A distance beyond the reach of the waves lay a body, still clothed, appearing to have drowned and washed in earlier, before the tide had ebbed somewhat. Apparently I hadn't been the only one to go overboard. I had no compunction about rifling the man's pockets and taking the pack which was still secured on his back. I found several sealed packets of seed, which I left wrapped and stowed in a pocket. Three sharp knives and a flint would serve me well as would the fishing twine and cotton along with several new steel fish hooks. What he had brought with him to start a new life would surely serve me well, for I had so little, as I had not been expecting to be away from home for any length of time at all.

      I noticed several large scavenging birds circling overhead, one was very big, an eagle I supposed. They could easily attract attention and having no idea in which direction or how far away lay the town of Robe, which I had heard mentioned several times, I opted to return to the seashore. I quickly walked along the beach to where rocky buttresses of sharp sandy stone rose high above the beach. Caves and cracks abounded in the area and I hid myself away from the eyes of any who might happen by.

      After sunset but with still enough light to see by, I moved cautiously around the coast, following the long shelf of hard rocky sandstone. I got down to the sea at one point and found that the rock pools there abounded with shellfish, crabs and small fish which I took with my hands and ate raw. Not the tastiest of snacks, but I was grateful for the food and felt some strength begin to return to my body. Later, in the dark of a moonless night, I came to where a light beacon fended ships from a rugged point where the coastline turned back on itself. I kept moving and soon realized, as the sound of the breaking waves diminished that I was walking up an estuary.

      An hour or so later I saw lights in the distance, smelled the smoke of fires and heard dogs barking. I would venture no further in that direction and risk discovery. I was fortunate in stumbling across a small dingy later that night and borrowed it, rowing across the mouth of the narrow bay, deciding hurriedly to travel west rather than to the east where they would likely be seeking for me on the morrow. As I crossed the calm stretch of water, the phosphorescence was astonishing, I had never seen the like before nor since. Each fish in the sea seemed to radiate vast amounts of light and even the blades of the oars I used were flashing so brightly I felt sure that I would be seen. Apparently I wasn't, for I made land amongst some swampy ground, just as the thin sliver of a moon appeared, followed an hour or so later by the dawning of the new day. Small round leaved trees grew right out into the seawater itself, so I hid the boat amongst them and even managed to catch several very large crabs which I stowed away in my pack to cook later should the opportunity arose.

      Beyond the shore lay long lines of low sandhills, separated by freshwater marshes, thankfully providing me with much needed water. My waxed cotton bag, I used to carry fresh water, for luckily I had the back pack and gear from the drowned man. After crossing several parallel sandy ridges I came to the sea again and found no sign of any rock, just a long sandy beach which stretched away as far as I could see, disappearing at distance into blurry mists from the crashing surf in the bright morning sunlight.

*      *      *

      For four days I followed the beach, living on small sand clams which abounded in their tastiness and I even caught the occasional fish, which I cooked over smokeless fires after darkness fell, in the shelter of the sand hills. For three days I saw no sign of habitation, nor any people, I was literally in a world of my own. On the fourth day I saw several, near naked, dark skinned men, whom I took to be natives of the country. They were collecting clams ahead of me on the beach, so I remained unseen and they soon vanished into the sand hills. On the morning of my fifth day on the long beach, I came to where a large river emptied muddy brown waters into the ocean and seeing several small boats well out to sea, as well as numerous thin plumes of smoke rising up into the still air, I turned inland away from civilisation and followed the course of the river.

      For two weeks I followed it's lazy meandering, carefully avoiding any people I came across and circling widely around the few towns or villages along it's banks. Eventually I met up with a group of twenty natives, who spoke no words I could fathom, nor could I speak to them. The lack of verbal communication hindered us little, as to gain their help and confidence I right away traded my smallest knife for a fish, which they took from the river with a net stretched over a submerged, hollow log. They were utterly amazed when I so quickly lit a fire that evening and cooked the fish, serving small pieces on flat bark plates.

      They followed me up the river for several days before it dawned on me that despite the primitive nature of their existence, they could at a whim move in any direction they so wished and stay where they would at their leisure. A large town barred my way and even the aboriginals didn't want to venture any further toward that knot of civilisation. Most of the group simply turned and walked back along the muddy brown river to the south, whilst the half dozen men remaining, seemed to be pointing to the Northwest and indicating that I travel with them.

      The fires I lit nightly were pleasing them and shortly after we left the river they managed to spear a heavy animal which travelled by means of large hopping leaps. I had seen several similar earlier in my travels, but never been close enough to attempt to kill one. They danced on through the night, painting themselves and burying the animal in the earth beneath a large fire, removing it to eat the half burned, half raw meat in the early hours of the morning.

      For several weeks we travelled thus, eating mostly smaller animals, lizards and snakes, oft' times fasting. Water was not found every day and it was no use my carrying it in my bag, for the whole group so quickly availed of what I carried, it was always used up within a few hours of us setting out. I had to admit however that I probably would have died of thirst had I attempted to cross this dry land without their assistance. They seemed to know where water lay, whether by memory or by some other craft I never learned. We finally sighted a high range of mountains, by which time I had learned many of their words and had become an accepted part of their group. They simply called me 'The man with the Fire.' The mountains rose stark and bare, contrasting the flat country of sandhills and small dry lakebeds we had crossed. I had long since realised that though there were rivers in this desert land, none seemed to carry water, except beneath the surface and in small soaks and springs at rare intervals.

      We arrived at the edge of the steep mountains and met with a substantial group of native people camped by a large pool, at the very edge of the cliffs which ringed a high plateau. Nearby an outwelling of almost boiling water seeped forth. The language they spoke was somewhat different from the little I had already learned, but I could make myself understood as their gestures were indeed identical to the group I had arrived with.

*      *      *      *

      My new home, for it soon became that, was a harsh place, yet satisfying in the simplicity and strength of those with whom I shared it. Never once was I spurned as an outsider, I was simply from elsewhere and seemed to be a welcome addition to their tribe. The longer I remained, the more at ease I became with their lifestyle and within a year I had a young and handsome wife and soon thereafter, a child. I saw many things over the years in the mountains, some made me happy, yet there was a looming sadness for the people I had become a part of.

      I saw early explorers who arrived with a whaleboat in tow, looking to cross an inland sea and finding only the desolation of the desert. Later the pastoralists took the land for their own use, giving little thought to those who lived on it for uncounted generations and yet never even though of the concept of ownership. I could see tribal ways were to change and yet the tribe seemed to slip into the changes, accepting the evils done to them as they would have a drought or even the influx of a much stronger tribe from the north. I watched miners arrive and strip the vallies of their copper but despite some searching, never did locate any gold, save for the faintest of traces.

      The hot springs, which the natives called Paralana is deserted now, as the tribe moved further south, near to one of the large homesteads. The previously deep pool was silted up in a flash flood one summer. I remain, seeking solace in my solitude for my final days. I smoke opium from the poppies to ease my pain. They now thrive all along the dry riverbed which cuts right through the mountains, a heritage left me by a dead man whose name I never knew. I managed to steal a large jar of honey from some miners. It was so sweet and delicious, reminding me of my youth, of times we travelled to the hills, seeking honey from huge bee colonies in the caves.

      I think of my grandchildren who would be somewhere out in the desert, still living the life of their people. I drift with the opium, feeling the pain of age and disease no more as I laugh with the Giant who made the mountains. He is far older than the snake who carved the meandering river and much easier to talk to too. I feel the pleasant warmth of the sand beneath me, as faint wisps of steam drift across my fading vision.

*      *      *      *      *

      'Wow!' I thought as cobwebs of dreamy sleep dissolved in the early morning light. I could see steam rising from the kettle as Malcolm boiled water for tea. 'That was some dream.' The business of the next few days, as we endeavoured to wind up the projects we were working on, quickly replaced the memories of the dream and the old gold diggings, with such as soil sample analyses, re-drawing maps, resolving scintillometer survey results and the like. It wasn't until I was doing a last run of streambed samples along the Yudnamutana Creek that I suddenly noticed the shingly creekbed was lined with poppies, the mauve and black petals of their flowers bright against green foliage. They were everywhere.

      'Opium poppies,' I thought. 'There certainly were Chinese here.'

      A month later, we returned to the mountains after a few weeks back in Adelaide, writing reports and catching up on a bit off social life. We'd returned to tie up a few odds and ends and were out near the Daly mine, mapping an extension of the Wywyana, a bed of actinolitic marble which is copper rich due to a heavy dissemination of syngenetic pyrite. We came across a very old, mostly collapsed dugout, built into the side of a hill and out of interest removed some of the rotted and fallen beams to find little inside initially, save the tattered remnant of some very old cloth. However, on further seeking, on a shelf, dug into the earthen wall at the rear, was an ancient self sealing jar, with clips which were well rusted into place.

      "This looks old," said Malcolm, picking it up. I nodded, recognising the jar I remembered Tamo lifting from the miners.

      "Is there honey in it?" I asked. "Yeh," replied Malcolm. "How did you know."

© 2008 Gar Avoch

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Added on December 4, 2008
Last Updated on December 5, 2008


Gar Avoch
Gar Avoch

Mount Egerton, Victoria, Australia

Moved from my mountain home, it's still back north, down to the colder goldfields in Victoria. Followed my heart. Studying writing and editing, hopefully this will begin to reflect in what I produce. more..

An Ending An Ending

A Story by Gar Avoch