I stood in front of the rather shabby looking reception desk waiting for the hostel owner, Evie, to return with my passport.
At least the hostel was clean, which set it apart from many of the others I’d visited in my time backpacking around Australia. Innisfail hadn’t been on my travel agenda, but money was tight and this working hostel had received glowing reports from the backpacker community.
Evie, middle-aged and rather plain, but friendly enough to make a person forget any other shortcomings, bustled back into the room and handed me my passport with a welcoming smile.
“Welcome to River View Eilidh. We’re thrilled to have ya. Alright. Come on back then.” She grabbed a key from one of the hooks behind the counter and motioned for me to follow.
Like most people, she pronounced my name ‘Ee-lid’ instead of ‘Ae-lee’ but I was well used to people struggling with the Celtic spelling.
I followed her down the small corridor toward the back of the building complex.
“Ear ya go.” She paused in front of a door with the number 5 painted on it. “Ye’r a lucky one! This room sleeps six but t’night ye’r pat malone.” She handed me the key. “Hooroo then. I’ll catch ya on the sunny side. Work starts around five so be sharpish with yer brekkie.”
She left and I let myself into the small spartan room. Like the reception, it was clean and functional, but I was knackered from the long journey. I dropped my bag next to the closest bunk, kicked off my shoes and fell into a grateful slumber.
5 a.m. arrived far too soon. The stomping of heavy work boots past my door woke me.
“Shit!” I grabbed my phone from the pocket of my bag and grimaced. ‘4;45’ glared up at me from the screen.
“Double shit!” There’d be no time for the shower I so desperately wanted. For once I was glad I’d slept in my clothes. They were a little creased, but they’d do — traditional backpacker chic.
I pulled a brush through my hair and slapped on some deodorant. Hopefully, the work would be outdoors so no one would notice my less than sociable hygiene.
Stuffing my wallet, passport, inhaler, and room key in my pocket, I scurried from the room and followed the sound of clattering dishes and mumbled conversation.
Breakfast, or ‘brekkie’ as Evie had called it, was a chaotic affair. I found the hostel kitchen outside underneath the communal deck. The hostel provided free pancakes and syrup each morning, and at least twelve, sleepy-eyed, backpackers were jostling for room at the hotplate.
“Here you go.” I turned to find a tall, dark-haired girl smiling down at me. Before I could respond, she handed me a shiny, green apple.
“Don’t worry. I’m not a morning person either. Usually, I’d be wallowing in a cup of coffee right about now.” She grinned and I found myself grinning back.
“You said ‘usually,’ what’s different about today? …I’m Eilidh by the way.” I took a grateful bite of the apple and followed the girl over to a nearby picnic bench.
“I’m Annie. It’s nice to meet you!” She sat down at the table, tucking her legs up on the bench beside her. “I haven’t actually been to sleep yet.”
“Well, that would certainly do it!” I laughed, taking a seat.
By the time breakfast was finished, it was time to leave for work. Annie had told me she worked for a building contractor who needed an extra hand on his cleaning crew.
A cyclone had swept through the area only a week or two earlier. Thankfully, no lives were lost, but the damage to buildings and crops had been considerable.
She asked if I wanted to give it a go and I gladly accepted. Starting new jobs was always a little stressful, it’d be nice to have a friendly face there to show me the ropes.
Five minutes later, we jumped into the back of a battered-looking flatbed truck and set off to the site.
We drew up outside a huge, blue-washed house about twenty minutes later. Annie climbed down from the back of the truck, holding a hand out to help me down.
“I envy you your long legs right now,” I grumbled. Annie laughed.
“Trust me, you wouldn’t be saying that if you’d ever had to take them shopping for jeans!”
The contractor walked around the truck to where we stood.
“Okay girls. It’s hard yacka, but it’s good honest work. I’m all for equality, so don’t expect to be treated different for bein sheilas.”
I nodded and he beamed at me.
“Right then! Smoko’s at ten, any questions just ask Warri. He’s the big blackfella…bit of a tightarse, but fair dinkum. He’ll see ya right. Annie here can tell ya what’s what, she’s a corker and it’s not her first roo shoot.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Hooroo then. I’ll catch ya later on.”
I was still translating that mouthful, as he jumped back into the truck and sped off down the street, windows down and music blaring.
“Is he…always like that?”
Annie laughed again. “Jackson’s a little rough around the edges, but his heart’s in the right place. Come on, I’ll show you where to start.”
The job involved shoveling cyclone debris and rubble into wheelbarrows and then emptying them into a large, battered, blue skip. The cyclone had really done a number on the house. The roof was lying in a smashed pile in the back garden, and the smell of damp, rotting plaster inside the house was unpleasantly pervasive. I found I had to plan my work to include regular fresh-air breaks to avoid feeling sick.
The morning was uneventful, aside from an encounter with a giant huntsman spider. Annie had screamed her lungs out from where she was working in one of the back rooms. Warri and I dashed to her aid, only to find her, perched on a rickety wooden chair, brandishing a broom at the poor, terrified creature.
Warrigal Anggamundi, Warri for short, was a stoic sort of man. He rolled his eyes and gently took the brush from the shrieking girl, shooing the impressively-huge spider out into the garden and effectively ending the drama.
Lunchtime came, but I’d only managed to bring a cereal bar which I’d snagged from the hostel vending machine.
Leaving the others to their sandwiches, I pocketed my less than appetising lunch and headed back out into the garden to explore some of the battered outbuildings.
I loved nature, even the eight-legged variety, so I was hoping to find more unusual creatures hiding in the outbuilding’s dusty interiors.
The first two I poked my head into were pretty uninteresting, lots of cobwebs, but no captivating fauna. The third one looked as dull as the other two at first, it had a few broken bottles, some water-damaged children’s toys and a large pile of debris from where the roof had caved in.
I was about to leave and move on to the next when a small movement caught my eye. I took a couple of steps into the room, and heard a snuffling noise coming from behind the pile of broken tiles and cracked timber.
“Hello.” My voice was barely a whisper as I didn’t want to scare whatever was back there. I skirted the pile, but at first, all I could see was yet more rubbish. I slowly reached my phone out of my trouser pocket and turned the torch on.
The beam of light illuminated a large pair of scared, yellow eyes.
“It’s okay…I won’t hurt you.” The creature cringed back, pressing itself tightly into the corner of the room with a terrified high-pitched whine.
Remembering the cereal bar in my pocket, I unwrapped it and broke a piece off, gently tossing it over to the leaf litter at the creature’s feet. At first, it hissed at the offering, but after a moment or two, it gave a long deep sniff.
Not taking its large eyes off me, it leaned forward and slurped up the piece. Delighted at my success, I broke off a second piece and tossed it over. This time, I aimed for directly under the hole left by the collapsed roof. The corner was dingy, so it had been hard to make the creature out. I’d guessed that it must be some kind of dog because of its long fur and pointed snout, but as it moved into the pool of light my breath caught in my lungs.
What on earth was it?! It had long dark fur much like a dog, but that’s where the canine similarity well and truly ended. Its long-pointed snout was covered in greenish scales, like those of a crocodile and its feet were webbed like a duck’s. Its tail was long and flowing like that of a horse, and it had two large, grey tusks protruding from beneath its upper lip. It was like someone had got their hands on the god clay, and gone to town with it.
I heard Annie calling my name outside but I didn’t want to chance leaving, in case the strange creature disappeared before I could show it to her. I broke off another piece and threw it to the creature to distract it, and called Annie’s name.
The creature flinched at the sound but it was clearly starving and it pounced on the third piece dragging it back a couple of steps into the shadows before devouring it with gusto.
Annie appeared in the doorway, followed closely by Warri who must have joined the search when Annie failed to find me.
“Eilidh? What are you doing in here?” Annie glanced nervously about, no doubt looking for more man-eating spiders.
“I found something…something strange. Look…” I broke off another piece of the quickly dwindling cereal bar and tossed it again into the pool of light.
There was a short pause and then one webbed foot poked into view. Another pause then, forgetting its fear in the face of its hunger, the creature trotted forward to claim its sticky, honey-coated prize.
“Struth! Take a breather for a sanga and a cold tinny, come back an there ya are, mad as a cut snake, feeding a frickin Bunyip!”
Warrigal’s eyes were wide as saucers as he stared in horror at the small scruffy-looking creature. “That things oldies’d spit the dummy if they found ya.”
“Feeding a what?”
“Bunyip…Dangerous fellas that live deep in billabong country. Must’a bin dropped ere by accident when the willy-willy passed through.”
Annie and I both looked at the odd little creature. He didn’t look dangerous in the least. Even his little tusks were dull at the ends.
“Can’t stay here. Got a crate in back, should fit the little bugger though.”
I felt a surge of fear for the poor little thing.
“You aren’t going to…hurt him?” It was meant to be a statement but it came out more like a plea.
“Nah. I’ll jes drop the ankle-biter back off where his oldies’ll find him. They jes tryin ta live, same as us folks.”
Half an hour later with the baby bunyip secure in his makeshift cage, Warri calmly waved goodbye and headed off in search of a suitable billabong.
Annie and I stood in stunned silence for a few minutes just trying to process what we’d seen.
“No one will ever believe us back home you know.” Annie ruefully said at last.
“I’m not even sure I believe us!?” I replied with a shrug and a smile. “So bunyips really exist then…I wonder what tomorrow will bring?”
“As long as it’s not another huge hairy spider then I’m happy!” We both burst into fits of giggles, grabbed our shovels, and went back to work.
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