The sky is quickly losing its light, the trees turning into shadows and if we weren’t on a road we would be in the bush, in the dark and have to stop. I am listening to the rain hitting the leaves in solid splatters, in part to drown out the wailing of the boys. They are teenagers, and have been crying at least an hour now, even before the rain started. They are crying for their mothers, long echoing wails into the coming darkness.
Twenty years of working with young offenders and I’ve never witnessed anything like it. Tears, sure, even from the toughest, but group wailing? I didn’t know anyone could miss Blacktown with such a passion.
There is a fourth boy who is not crying but walks behind me, our quiet talk is mixed with incomprehension and we look for explanations. They’re tired, they’re hungry, they’ve never walked this far before, they’ve never been away from home so long, or had to take care of themselves, it’s cold and wet and they don’t know where they are. I think of travel, I think of children working from the time they are five, I think of refugees, of genocide, of war. I think of prison and I look at them in wonder.
They are all tall, 5.9 at least, big boys, strong arms, overweight with bellies that squeeze out over the waist-belts of their packs. They could lay me flat if that was their way. All four have criminal charges, not in school, not working. We are three weeks into an adventure therapy program and are on the convict road that stretches from Sydney to Newcastle. The road cuts through what used to be the wild domains of New South Wales, bush that spreads out in eucalyptus, bottlebrush, rose myrtle, she-oak, casuarina and burs that stick to your clothes and hair.
The road was built in sixteen years, finished in 1822, hundreds of convicts labouring in chains, cutting stone by hand through rocky soil. Laying blood, sweat and tears across the searing land. I think of the aching backs and the aching hearts. Has the land itself held onto these spirits? Because I think it can. Have you ever walked into a room where sadness is imprisoned and you can smell the desperation?
We are breeding a new kind of convict now, but the irony of the situation is lost on the boys. They don’t relate to hard labour or convict work camps.
At our feet the ground writhes with tiny boneless leeches that waver, desperately hoping to cling to our boots and make their way to our skin, our blood. Ngaire, the other guide, and I sing, as much to cheer us as the boys. They continue their persistent lament to their mothers and I think of wolves howling at the moon, of rabbits crying in their traps, of elephants shedding tears. We trudge onwards.
We are making our way to the river for water but I know we can put out the cook pots and collect enough. We find a patch of level ground to call home. I’m wet through, leaves stick to my sleeves and I have to walk the boys through every step. Get out your tents, get out your pots, and don’t change to dry clothes until your tent is finished. Ngaire and I help set up every tent and once camp is made the crying stops.
The boys crawl into their tents. I encourage them to change and if they are hungry to help make dinner. The one who led the crying doesn’t bother to change or zip up his tent and lies there whimpering like a wet dog. He’s seventeen and wants to be a musician. When he falls asleep a calm quiet spreads.
Rick recovers quickly and becomes entranced in building a fire – this he loves. I send him in search of secret stashes of dry leaves and twigs hidden in the undergrowth. We cut up found branches and look to see if the insides are dry enough to make shavings. We make a pile of flora to burn. The rain has stopped and we have a smoky fire. It will be some time before there is enough heat to dry out clothes.
Rick, Ngaire and I sit by the fire. Joe sits at the mouth of his tent eating dry noodles. The others sleep. We watch the firelight and Rick talks to us over the hiss of drying sticks. He talks about his crime, his family, his brother, about why he is here. He is happy with the fire. Ngaire and I cook over the camp stove and eventually we are fed and the stars are starting to poke out from between the clouds.
First published in ZineWest 2015