WHEN HE EMERGED from the rainforest after he, his brothers and father had set out eight months before, Simon O'Conner seemed half man, half beast. His skin was browned by the sun and dirt and shiny with horse fat, his head was covered in a cap of emu feathers, his feet encased in rotting moccasins made from badly tanned horse skin. His trousers had rotted away, leaving only the waistband and pockets. A leather satchel pitted with tooth marks was strung over his shoulder and a dead Torres Strait Island pigeon hung from a piece of animal gut around his neck.
The sailors had been preparing to row back to the ship moored in the bay, after spending a week looking for any sign of a white man, when they spotted the gaunt figure, more apparition than flesh and blood, wobble out of the tangle of trees and vines. At first they mistook him for a native but as he came closer, moving unsteadily on his tremulous legs, through the long spiky grass towards the beach, it was the Aborigine who recognised him: Dat Mister O'Conner. I think 'im Simon, Mister O'Conner's boy. Captain Jackson asked Pompey if he were sure it was one of O'Conner's sons. The staggering man seemed too old to be eighteen.Dat 'im all right, Captain.
Sailors rushed to the young man's aid. When they reached him Simon stopped and gazed at his rescuers, seemingly unable to comprehend that the men trying to hold him up were real humans, for he smiled, waved his hand as if brushing away figments of his imagination and, pushing aside the caring hands, set off again towards the sea. Captain Jackson jumped in front of him. What happened to the others? What happened to your brothers? Simon didn't seem to hear the questions and set off to go around the obstacle in front of him, when he suddenly stopped, recognising Pompey. My father? he asked thickly, his swollen tongue making speech painful. My father said he would meet me here.
Pompey looked to the captain for advice, but all Jackson could do was shrug. I can't hear, slurred Simon loudly as if about to cry. Your father, said Pompey softly, 'e give up the ghost. Simon paused as if trying to understand and then sighed as if the final breath of energy he was capable of escaped from his lips, and he fell down face-first onto the humid earth, the very earth that was now his alone and from which Girrawandi would spring.
IN REALITY GIRRAWANDI did not begin with this exhausted faint, but a year before when Simon's father, Richard O'Conner, bought a vast tract of land the size of Wales, sight unseen, in Far North Queensland, a spot that had only been visited by the occasional shipwrecked sailor and one explorer who had returned after two years of hardship and the deaths of seven of his thirteen-member party, saying it would be perfect for the cattle industry, but it would need resolute, hardy sons of the soil for the venture to succeed.
To most people who knew Richard O'Conner it seemed an unnecessary enterprise. He already had a huge cattle station in north-west New South Wales and four sons, three of them strong, able-bodied young men to run the property once their father died. It had survived a drought and was flourishing. But, one evening several months before, after returning from the marking yard, he found his wife hanging from a ceiling beam in the kitchen. A quiet woman, she had remained true to her pious, taciturn life by leaving no note or explanation for why she had defied God by taking her own life.
Richard said nothing and cut her down, laying her out on the kitchen table so his sons would see the full horror of what she had done. After the funeral – held in the back paddock because the local priest wouldn't bury her in consecrated ground – Richard went on a bender that lasted three days. He drunkenly roamed the station screaming incoherently at the sky, rolling in the mud around the dam and, on the third day, attempting to shoot his favourite horse before he was subdued by his sons and tied to his bed, where he ranted and raved for hours before slipping into a deep sleep that lasted twenty-four hours.
A few weeks later Richard's manager, a Mr Sherrin, did something that, as Richard was to write in his journal, offended God. Even though Sherrin had been crucial to the station's prosperity, and was probably Richard's closest friend, he was fired. When Sherrin was reluctant to leave, Richard shot two bullets at the tardy man's feet. There is a sense that whatever the offence was, it involved one or more of the brothers, because, as Richard's journal later showed, part of his reason for buying the land was his desire to refind the lost flint and purpose of my sons' hearts.
He announced to his sons and the town that he was going to found an empire. He sold his station, bought the cattle and horses that would be needed on the eighteen-hundred-mile trek north. Locals thought the journey would only end in disaster. No settler had ever made such a journey in Australia and even explorers like Leichhardt and Thomas Mitchell would have baulked at the idea of driving four hundred head of cattle through treacherous, unknown territory in a race to reach their land before the Wet.
But the more people warned him, cautioned him and even laughed at him behind his back (because everyone was afraid of laughing openly at this stern, physically imposing man), the more Richard was determined to prove them wrong. Like all self-made men he was a loner who despised the perceived weaknesses of others and who took advice only from himself, because he was convinced that only he had the willpower and tenacity that everyone else lacked.
He had given the land the name of Girrawandi, an Aboriginal word from a tribe who had once lived on his land. It apparently meant ‘place of food', and Richard knew that if trouble loomed and exhaustion set in, it was easier to convince his sons to continue on to a place that had a name rather than something nameless. Girrawandi, he told his sons before setting out, was a place they would make so famous that the name of O'Conner would never be forgotten.
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