Thursday, October 20, 2011
Terra Australis Templar
I have recently been brushing up on my research on the discoverers of Australia. This is of course a fascinating subject and one I hope to pursue in depth when thousands of my books sell. At this point I would like to remind you that two red Ned Tudor Mystery novels The Liberties of London and The Queen’s Oranges are currently available for an extremely modest price on Amazon.
But enough of this shameless self promotion, back to the theme of this discussion.
Who did discover Australia?
Now I remember learning in school four odd decades ago about our historical discoverers especially in the year 1970 when all Australians celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the Captain Cook expedition. We even minted a special fifty cent piece, which I sure I can find if I diligently searched through my dusty archived childhood coin collection. But that is a digression, in the meantime on to more contentious issues. What if the first European discoverers were actually none of these, what if it was someone completely unexpected and for the kind of reason that only a historical reality that reads like a wry fantasy provides. Well I welcome you to my new soon to be released novel Terra Australis Templar.
So found a pyramid in Queensland, a mysterious shipwreck in the sand or hieroglyphics on cliff face? No doubt Peter Wilks a British medieval history lecturer and reluctant ‘guest’ of Australia’s sunny shores will be given the task to solve the mystery. That’s if he can survive a potent mix of Australian terrors including academic Stalinism, too close acquaintance with crocodiles, treachery plus a myriad of fanged, clawed and gun toting denizens of the Antipodes. Luckily he has Lampie, his attractive and deeply cynical Aussie guide who continually struggles to keep Peter on track… or at least in one piece.
This is a new series of stories of archaeological adventure with a hefty splash of mystery, humour, skulduggery and historical speculation. They follow the mis-adventures of Peter Wilks, a modern day remittance man from Britain, who finds himself deeply mired in historical controversy, archaeology and the sordid politics that infests the halls of Australian academia.
The sky was a kind of intense hammer blue that spanned all overhead, making the horizon retreat well back over the turquoise waters, breaking with a leisurely splash on the sparkling white sand. The sun was still high enough in the heaven to give the barest hint of the coming flood of burnt orange sunset, while to the north the advancing bank of dark clouds fringed the scene lending the dramatic tension of a coming storm. It was the sort of vista that’d have one of those east coast landscape photographers whimpering with ecstasy, if only they could capture the moment.
To the lean built man hunched over the narrow trench cautiously scooping away trowels of sandy brown soil, the allure of the coming sunset was irrelevant. So absorbed in his work, he hadn’t notice that the shifting sun had passed the limited shelter of the canvas tarp, crisping the already tanned skin of his left arm below a rolled up faded blue shirt sleeve and bleaching out his wild red hair that escaped the restraint of a battered ‘diggers’ hat.
Another figure slowly paced up the low hill into view. It was almost as lean as the patient excavator, though the approach through the low brush of the sandy hill would have excited a different photographer. The long elegant taper of firm smooth thigh hit the edge of the tan shorts hinting at an interesting continuation of the curved sweep. While further up beneath the gaping desert ‘camo’ jacket shadowed swellings barely restrained by an open necked t-shirt, flashed into view with each step. To finish the profile long blond hair was tied back in a slowly bouncing pony tail, enhancing the landscape with alluring potential. The scene was just made for a front cover of ‘Fish and Game’. All she needed was the rifle artfully slung over her shoulder and ‘huntin’ enthusiasts would have been clambering over each other to get a copy. Damn that, if any advertising exec had glimpsed the image he’d have signed her up in a trice to flog a new model of 4x 4 that every accountant needed to brave the perilous wilds of suburban driving.
Instead the opportunity was lost as she sauntered over to the flapping awning, idly waving off a host of flies with the sort of casual elegance that a cosmetics director would have traded his secretary for.
“Y’ finished yet Sid? Uncle Bill’s got us a fresh barra to grill over the fire and Rob and Bluey have packed all the gear ready for the next site.” The lean figure pushed himself up from the trench and sat back on his haunches, brushing a dusty hand across his face.
“No I bloody well haven’t! Who said those two could pack up anyway?” The reply may have sounded petulant, though the long blonde plait only twitched impatiently, lazily flicking a cascade of gold in the afternoon light. A dozen shampoo commercial directors missed the chance of an award winning ad.
“I told em’. Got a problem with that?” Blonde pony tail began to recite what appeared to be a well rehearsed script, ticking each point off with her fingers. “Well Sid, first is the site at Champagny Island that the museum wanted us to check. Second there’s those caves up past Brecknock Harbour for Lavost Explorations. Remember them Sid? The guys that actually pay us? Then we promised to be back in Broome by next week, so you want all that and me as pilot, we have to pack now and head off before dawn to catch the tide.”
Hazel eyes under the battered digger’s hat creased in sudden annoyance and a free hand swatted at a hovering insect. “Well Lampie that’s changed, we stay here!” The answer was short and abrupt as the dusty man named Sid returned his attention to the open trench.
Lampie gave a slow shake of her head as if she was used to Sid’s sudden petulance and this was just one more in the daily flow.
“Oh and get ’em to bring up the lights and the generator!” Sid was still staring at the dirt in his trench and casually threw the command back over his shoulder.
Lampie crossed her arms and stared intently at the fly covered shirt of the excavator, as if painting a target for immediate use. “You sure about that? We’re running pretty low on fuel and its a long way back to Derby.”
If Sid had bothered to turn around, he may have recognized the implied subtext of the question. A more observant man would have instantly translated that foot tapping stance as ‘you really don’t want to piss me off!’
“What? Yeah. One at each end‘ll do fine, angled into the trench ’d be great.” The last conversation must have strayed somewhere else, cos Sid had missed it all.
Lampie dropped the subtle approach and growled out a reply.
“Get em yourself, arsehole! I said we had to leave or y’ can paddle off with the frekin’ sea turtles!”
“And Lampie, unpack the cameras and set em up to view the excavation, I want this discovery on film!”
Like a pair of trains hurtling towards each other at breakneck speed, this conversation was looking like a collision and at each switch, Sid, oblivious to the threat, pulled the wrong lever. Lampie was clearly unimpressed and her demeanor screamed the unsubtle signs of incipient mutiny, the sort that would see the obsessed Sid tumbled into his ditch with a casual but deliberate kick, soon followed by his lights and any number of extra objects that’d serve to fill the hole. Then import of his last comment froze the coming boot.
Discovery was an interesting word, so full of promise and portent. Discovery was in fact a very overused claim. To any advertising agency it was automatically tagged to the latest model of SUV, proclaiming its rugged supremacy, even if it got bogged in a light dewfall. All of them in Sid’s crew were hoping to hear that magically stimulating word after working up and down this coast for years. At its reverberation Lampie dropping her foot, then shoved in next to her grubby supervisor and peered into the open trench.
“What have you found Sid?”
Her companion lent over the open pit and scratched at a nondescript bit of soil with his trowel. A distinct ring sounded from the steel.
Hazel eyes widened in interest. “What is it?”
Sid, with the battered hat, shook his head and gave a crooked smile. “We won’t know until we get the lights an all. Ask Uncle Bill to bring tucker up here. I need to keep on this.”
Lampie straightened up and unselfconsciously brushed the loose sand off her knees, before bounding down the slope towards the small array of tents surrounding the fire. Sid pleased at her eager interest, took his attention off the trench for a brief moment and watched the vanishing figure, letting out a brief regretful sigh before returning his excavation.
The sun had fulfilled its earlier promise and the sky to the west was layered in bands of vivid colour, blood red to fiery orange and the narrowing arc of light blue to the spreading dark purple of night and its spray of stars in the east. The trembling whine of the small generator filled the coming darkness on the hill, as it struggled to supply power to the flood lights. The rest of the small party after setting up the required equipment, had stuck around to help, while the aroma of freshly grilled fish served to create an impromptu barbeque atmosphere. Low voices casually swapped improbable tales as they bent over the exposed discovery, deftly sweeping away the surrounding sandy soil at Sid’s exacting direction. The view through the camera on a tripod seemed inadequate to Lampie and every few minutes she eagerly bobbed her head around to peer into the trench.
It was a few hours into the full night before they’d finished digging out the hidden object, and probably a full ten minutes in stunned silence as they contemplated their find. It was rectangular in shape, probably wooden and covered in heavy bands of severely corroded iron. Any east coast archeologist would have traded his doctorate to make a find like this and as they looked at the chest shaped find, images of elaborately dressed pirates, bottles of rum and noisy parrots paraded through their imaginations. Well except for the assistant called Bluey. For some reason he just thought of fish and more bizarrely, of leather shorts. Of all of them, it wasn’t Sid who made the first tentative move to touch the chest.
“Put your hand near that Rob, an’ I’ll have it off at the elbow.” It was only a quiet suggestion from Sid, but Rob pulled his hand back faster than if it had been in a fire.
“But Sid mate!” He wailed with a distinct tremble.
“Its…its got to be a treasure chest, you know with piles of loot and gold!” Rob was a big fella, and he wasn’t used to shirking a challenge. It’d been said in Broome that when he’d caught some swanky tourist trying to cheat him over a friendly game, he’d pushed a pool table through the wall of a pub. The tourist had been airlifted to Perth, that night. The idiot’d been between the table and the wall. Despite that reputation Rob eased his bulk an extra pace away from Sid.
Even in the limited illumination of the flood lights, the others could see that Sid was serious. His right hand had closed menacingly around the haft of a shovel, while his eyes had acquired a hardened sheen, just like the one most favoured by murderous psychopaths in horror flicks before they meaningfully dismembered a few of the extras.
“We’re not scavengers like bloody Fenton! We’re archeologists. This dig’ll be handled properly, not plundered!”
The two assistants, Rob and his smaller friend Bluey gave each other a quizzical look, and Bluey, still lost in dreams of scaly delight and lacking his friend’s survival instinct blurted out a surprised comment.
“Since fuckin’ when? I thou…”
The rest was smothered by Rob’s hairy paw, as he grabbed his mate and hauled him back from the trench. The third figure of Uncle Bill stepped back into the shielding darkness, away from the glare of light and vanished.
Lampie switched off the camera and cautiously stepped forward, laying a firm hand on Sid’s shoulder. Only a blind fool wouldn’t feel the tension quivering beneath the thin cloth. “Ahh Sid, could you an’ me have a bit of a chat for a mo’?”
The leaner man slowly straightened up. He wasn’t much taller than Lampie, nor muscled like his two nervous assistants, more whipcord thin, no fat, just corded muscle and sinew like the old man ‘reds’ that bounded across the interior. He gave a brief glare of warning at the rest of his company before following her into the surrounding night. Twenty paces out past the glare of light, he joined her sitting on a low outcrop of rock set away from the thrumming noise of the generator, but in full view of the illuminated trench.
“I know being out here a while can get to anyone Sid. But have you gone freckin’ crackers? What was that shit?” You had Rob scared enough to piss himself!”
Sid may have frowned, it was impossible to see, but he did take a long slow inward breath before answering. “Lampie, how long have we known each other?”
If there was light, blonde pony tail could have been seen to tilt her head reflectively and give a long curious look at her companion. She fervently hoped this wasn’t going to be another one of those weird wandering ‘talks’ that had recently became his habit. “Its been four years Sid, two down in Perth and the rest up here. Why?”
The battered digger’s hat gave a slow unseen nod. “Yeah that’s right. Four years, seems longer. Well, after all that time scouring this God forsaken coast, fighting off mosquitoes, Irukandji and salties, all to scratch around for rusted relics and wreck leavings in the freckin’ heat. Just so some wanker in lounge loafers can gawk at it and say how much bloody better he is with his laptop and mobile! Now I think we got a real chance! Lampie this could be it!” The unsuppressed eagerness made his voice quiver as the words rushed out.
“What! I thought you liked it here?” There was an edge of anger to that question. What the hell did he think they were supposed to do? Was Sid turning into another pampered tosser from Perth?
“Yeah, well yeah. It kinda grows on you but I can’t go back to Sydney without something, well decent or maybe astounding.”
“What the freakin Hell! Why would you want to go back there? You got someone back there? Should I tell Elaine?” Sid was beginning to piss her off. He more or less said he didn’t like it up here and was just doing it to go back east. She clenched her fist in preparation. Once they got back she was sure Elaine would understand Sid’s bruised condition, he was clearly going mental!
Sid gave an embarrassed chuckle and even in the minimal light from the rising moon could be seen to give his face a nervous rub. “No, no. After Elaine, any city girl is going to seem well, insipid.”
That was a close save. Lampie ratcheted down her growing anger. Maybe Sid was just going through male menopause or something.
“No. Sometime soon, I’ve got to go back east and clear up some history, if not this year then damn soon.”
It was Lampie’s turn to slowly nod her head in agreement. Yeah that’d be right. So many ended up here in the Kimberleys due to ‘history’. Some were tightlipped and taciturn like Sid, others after a few drinks broke out into drunken rages smashing up the pub. That kind of made sense. Sid frequently joked that it was easier to come out here than join the French Foreign Legion. She didn’t think much about it, having been born in the rugged north west. The four years in Perth had nearly driven her screaming mad. A few weeks or a month may have been a novelty but two endless semesters a year! Uni field work just couldn’t make up for that much purgatory. It was too long and too many people with their heads stuffed full of stupid rules set by petty minded idiots. But that was her ‘history’ and without Sid’s help she wouldn’t have lasted. Well that and heaps of walks and meditation, actually buckets of walks and meditation and borrowing Helen’s yacht for two weeks. Well to be strictly accurate, it was her uncle’s yacht and closer to a month would not be stretching the truth too far.
Anyway, Sid was usually fun to work with and the jobs challenging and not many round here tolerated her ‘quirks’, certainly not those tossers down in Perth. Sid didn’t freak out that often. Mostly when he got drunk he told outrageous stories of his time back east, swore vividly for five minutes straight about some bloke called Ekland. Then in mid stride he’d collapse on the flooring and proceed to snore loudly until a pounding headache sent him moaning into Elaine’s capable arms. So compared to a few rounds here, Sid was good company.
So she owed him a chance to explain his freckin’ fragile temper. This last week had been the worst ever. He’d snapped at everyone, even at Uncle Bill and only those tired of life would piss off the old Wandijani cook, a man with the reputation of transforming even the most unpalatable local creature or wild plant into a mouthwateringly savoury meal.
“Okay what’s up? How’s this fit in with our commission from the museum, Lavost or our little sideline?”
Sid shifted uncomfortably. First he tugged at the brim of his hat, then gave his face another rub. Finally he made a move to grab a packet of smokes from his pocket. Damn, he must be upset. He gave them up a few years back after he got ‘rescued’ by Elaine. Finally he dropped his head in surrender.
“Lampie, I’m getting spooked by what I’m finding. There’s too much that doesn’t add up, or rather quite a bit that does and none of our employers are going to like it!”
Lampie shook her head trying to figure out what Sid was on about. This site had only marginally gained her attention. While it was mildly interesting as a beach, nothing had screamed out to her, no legends, from the local Wandijani as a warning or any of the usual signs for sacred places. The preliminary research was pretty sketchy as far as she’d seen, no eyewitness reports or visible remains, so it was as empty as she’d expected. In fact, it was so lean and unpromising, she couldn’t figure out why Sid had been so insistent on an inspection. Then within minutes of landing on the white sandy beach he had lost the plot, freaking out big time. First he’d done the preliminary site walk on his own, a bit irregular but they’d all shrugged and let him have his way while they set up camp. Then after that, he’d shut up tighter than a clam about anything and set out strict instructions on where to do the trial trenches. That was when Bluey had discovered the first graves. After that Sid just got weirder right up to now.
‘So it’s different. Makes a change to shell middens and ballast stones. Why bother? It’s nothing special.” It was her turn for an invisible dismissive shrug. It paid not to get one’s hopes up on this job. Any wild thoughts about his strangeness and the chest were shoved back into the deepest recesses of her consciousness. Obsession with the phantom glimmer of riches had killed too many along this coast.
“You saw that chest we uncovered. What do you think it is, or where it’s from?”
“Come on Sid you know I avoided those units cos they were dead boring under Richards. All we got to look at were his collection of rescued early twentieth century trash! At a guess it’s a chest, mid ninetieth century, so what! There’s a dozen in the Broome antique stores. Give me an area and I’ll find your site, then I’ll draw it. If it’s a wreck, I’ll dive it. As for identifying junk, that’s your work.”
Sid had pushed past the nervous stage and was now quivering with excitement almost bouncing off the rock. She was wondering if maybe tying him up for a while might help, when he turned and grabbed her arm thrusting his face closer. “Its older than that Lampie. Real old I reckon, around the sixteen hundreds!”
She could see the moonlight glint off his eyes. A Wandijani karadji man would have warned of possession by spirits and backed off chanting and conjuring protection. She didn’t have that option, instead dropping her right hand until it touched the hilt of her knife. Not that she meant to slice up Sid, but precaution wouldn’t hurt.
Another piece of useful knowledge bubbled up, ‘when faced with a madman be sympathetic and engage them in quiet conversation, no loud noises or sudden movements’ God knows where that came from probably one of her father’s strange Victorian era books. Oh well she made her voice pleasantly chatty.
“Really Sid! How’d you know it isn’t something salvaged from the Manfred, that went down near here, or maybe the Calliance. She kept on dropping bits all along this coast till she finally sank. We’ve found dozens of caches stashed from Darwin to Broome. Why’s this any different?”
Even in the dark night, Lampie could see the vigorous shaking of his head in the dim moonlight. Being so close gave her a clarity she didn’t need. Sid shook his head in denial like a damp dog. “No I thought that too, as I trowelled off the first layer, but along with those graves we found, I was getting pretty certain!”
“Why? They looked pretty standard dead guys in the ground to me.” That’s right, she thought, keep it calm and Sid will let go before I break his wrist.
“The decomposition was too far advanced even for here. If they were buried in the last hundred or so years we’d have fragments of cloth, maybe boot leather, nails and metal buttons. They didn’t have any of that and the orientation is strictly east-west. I could go on about the other irregularities but I reckon you’d find that a bit boring, like Richards’ tutorials.”
“Yeah, got that right!” Another bit of usually useless knowledge came to the fore, ‘engage the troubled person in talking about something they like, a happy reminiscence perhaps.’
“Tell me Sid, what’s the evidence for your supposition?” She tried to imitate the low rumble of Richards, her former lecturer and bane of her existence at uni. Sid kinda respected him, well, most of the time.
“It’s the chest. The ironwork is a lot older than a few hundred years – the simple pattern of the ironwork, excessive corrosion, the remnants of leather as a water proof cover and I think the timber is oak.”
It was incredible. She didn’t know Sid had such a depth of knowledge. Some of her amazement must have got through. Sid let go and gave an embarrassed chuckle as he waved his hand apologetically.
“Arrh, I had a mate back in the east, you see, he loved old ironwork. Used to build replicas of all sorts of things from beds to armour. The man was a walking encyclopedia on the Middle Ages and knights and such. He was one of those eccentric Brits we used to keep on getting sent out from the UK. Not near as bad as some.”
That memory caused him to pause and moonlight sparkled off his teeth with the smile or grimace of times past. “Poor Pete, he was a bit lost out here. He’d go on and on about how we didn’t have any real history worth digging up and moan about how recent all the stuff was here. Well a few months with him yakking away and it kinda rubbed off.”
The conversation dropped into a considered silence as implications and fantasies combined and percolated upwards to the conscious mind. Perhaps, just perhaps Sid wasn’t barking mad and gold glittered in the distance.
“Soo, Rob was right. It’s a treasure chest like the Batavia?” There she’d said it and now the Goddess of Fate would snatch their chance away.
“Yeah. Well y’know the laws of chance mean that even Rob has to be right sometimes.” That came out with a quavery laugh.
Sid was so twitchy it was beginning to make her nervous. It was a pretty wild possibility and took a bit of getting used to. They both lapsed into a speculative silence for a few more minutes. She’d covered enough of the basic history units to know about the wreck of the Dutch ship the Batavia, in the early 1600s. The grisly story of mutiny, murder and treasure were enough to gain the attention of even the most bored student.
“Okay, so who’s chest is it?” That question just oozed reticence. Despite the allure of a box of gold and gems, she was still reluctant to concede it wasn’t another of the usual run of stashed ship’s fittings buried by some wreck stripper.
Sid took off his hat and fiddled with the brim. “I was trying to figure that out while we were uncovering it. The list is pretty long – anybody from the Dutch to the Portuguese or maybe Spanish.”
She still suppressed a sudden surge of hope. All of those tended to carry handy chests of silver or gold coins. “What about that English pirate, Dampier? He cruised around here. I remember he tried to take one of the Manila treasure galleons.” She couldn’t help it, it just slipped out.
“I thought you said you skipped the history units? That’s why I had to arrange those special practicals for you.” Sid sounded distinctly suspicious, as if he’d caught her out stealing from the cookie jar. Well, actually he had.
“Not when they included pirates. Even Richards couldn’t make those boring! Anyway let’s go find your treasure.”
Lampie stood up and gave a stretch, but Sid jumped quickly to his feet and grabbed her arm again. Not a good move. Her other hand shot up and locked around his wrist. Ignoring the discomfort he maintained his grip. “Lampie, we got to take this really cautiously. There are a shit load of scavengers out there who‘d be onto us quicker than a saltie after a tourist, if they heard even a hint of what could be here! This could be bloody dangerous!”
“Okay, okay we’ll take it carefully, like you say.” Lampie slowing nodded her agreement and twisted out of Sid’s grip. He was definitely still hiding something, but about what?
With the discussion at a seeming end, they both returned to the floodlit trench and Sid began the painstaking task of getting into the chest. Lampie continued to monitor the camera, while Bluey and Rob took turns to check on the generator and occasionally Uncle Bill would front up and pass around strongly aromatic cups of steaming tea.
The first red streaks of dawn shot across the eastern sky, washing out the darker purple of the Kimberleys night though the crescent disc of the moon seemed reluctant to surrender the heavens. To a collective low gasp the lid was slowly eased upwards and all of them crowded around the opened chest. Then after a long moment of puzzled inspection, they all spoke at one.
“Where’re the dubblins? If this is a pirate chest there’d be golden dubblins.
“What about the jewels, an’ pearls, an’ piles of silver?”
“It’s doubloons Bluey. Now shut up.”
“Yurkch. That’s a funny way ta stow a blokes’ sconce boss.”
“I don’t think so... Now be quiet.”
“Urrh, yuk! Christ, Sid! What the hell is this box of junk? We spent so much effort digging up broken crockery and that? I told ya this was another wrecker’s stash!”
“Every body SHUDDUPP!!!!”
Silence dropped suddenly, just in time for the morning chorus of birds to start up. Sid slowly stood up, finger stiffly outstretched, pointing at the three objects in the box. After his bellow, the rest of the company dropped back in surprise. But now they clustered around closer, and leaned in over the open chest to see what Sid was so upset about.
“You see that! You all see them laid out like that. Do you know what it means?”
They seemed to glow with their own pearly sheen from the dawn light, washed in red from one side and a dark silvery tint from the other. Lampie pushed forward and had the best view of their discovery, though she still didn’t understand why Sid was trembling from head to toe. Perhaps he’d finally lost the plot. It happened to some of them out here. They went raving mad and tried to talk to a saltie or thought they were jellyfish.
She made surreptitious hand signals to the rest of the crew and spoke in a quiet soothing voice. “No Sidney. Could you please tell us?”
Sid took a long deep breath and dropped his quivering hand. “It means we’re so deep in the shit, we’re going to need snorkels to get out of this!”
And that was when, Lampie remembered later, the problems really started.
Hope you enjoyed this sample dear friends the whole novel will be out soon on Amazon Kindle