The Museum of Fire
From the Great Western Highway we could see a billboard advertising the Museum of Fire flickering and dancing in the incandescent heat haze of the early afternoon; as if the sign might stand for the thing itself—assuming fire is a thing, not an agent of transformation. After that, we climbed the long and winding road from Emu Plains to the plateau; paused for lunch at Katoomba then continued on to the turn-off at Little Hartley, going via Good Forest, Anthill, Millionth Acre and Pardon’s Road all the way to Hampton Halfway, after which the descent to the caves begins. If you want to buy a farm, call Pat Bird, a billboard advised; the map suggested Fossicking but for what I do not know: gems, perhaps; crystals. Stones or bones. I had been here before, I remembered the strangeness of that steep road twisting down through humped wooded hills, the way it seems to slide vertiginously into what used to be called the bowels of the earth, the light-headedness of arrival in a place where you feel below you caverns of air opening out one into another all through those unplumbed depths. How many undiscovered caves are there? is a common question here, a guide told me, and despite its absurdity, and the evident non-sequitur, you can’t help wondering: it is indeed an as yet unthreaded labyrinth. This old groin in the hills, three ranges arching down to meet somewhere beneath Caves House; the sound of water falling endlessly, endlessly falling; that immense downward draught turning the walls to paper; the floors floating breathless away.
Nettle Cave was not open last time I was here. You could however, I think, still make your way through the Devil’s Coachhouse, so called, into McKeown Valley beyond. McKeown was an escaped convict who became the first European to find what were then called the Fish River Caves. He lived in a bark hut at the junction of two creeks and grew wheat in the hidden valley, changing nothing. It is said he knew the caves so well he could disappear and run right through the mountain. He was perhaps a simpleton; also a thief: from nearby towns and farms he took anything he could lay his hands upon, whether useful or not: bullock bows, hinge pins and, off the washing line at the Plough & Harrow, Mrs Roberts’ clothes; so that whatever was lost was said to have been stolen by McKeown. When Farmer Whalan and the rest of the posse tracked him to his hut he leaned his head out the window, wearing Mrs Roberts’ hat. The band did not play Waltzing Matilda as they took him away. There are the eponymous nettles growing beside the trail as, electronic aids in hand, we take the self-guided tour; even though I know their sting to be painful, I find it hard to resist touching the blue-green, somehow baroque, plants; like something from the foreground of a Durer print. Maggie is in her own world, taking photographs. I listen, in a desultory fashion, to the commentary, hoping for illumination. I learn a new term: cave fantasies. That’s for our human habit of naming formations after some, usually exotic, object: The Jewel of the South, for instance, the White Altar and the Angel’s Wing; none of which are to be found in Nettle Cave. We see instead an ancient perch of the Sooty Owl, generations of which are said to have, for 16,000 years, used this same rocky ledge. Their dung and their regurgitated pellets of bone and skin and teeth excavated from the cave floor; their mournful screech, memorialized in the commentary, is the origin of the name the Devil’s Coachhouse. Further on we are pointed (electronically) in the direction of lobster-backs, crayfish-backs, which are large, humped rocks which have a wet unearthly blue-green sheen to them and are alleged by some authorities to be alive: stromatolites—a rare type of non-lake dwelling cyanobacteria living on the surface of the limestone, sustained by the calcium-rich dripping water, which allows them to grow first east, then west, toward the light filtering alternately in from the two open ends of the cave. Others, however, assert that they are merely limestone accretions like stalagmites, stalactites, helictites and other speleothems, formed into peculiar shapes by the winds wafting in from either end; which vary, in a precise and regular manner, the way the water drops fall. They look half alive to me but what do I know? And where, anyway, do you draw the line between what lives and what does not? Don’t crystals grow and even reproduce? We come out of Nettle Cave and cross the road to the Blue Lake which is man-made (there is a dam further down that supplies hydro-electricity to the hotel) but takes its colour from minerals picked up in the passage of water through the caves; it is a milky aqua and there are platypus therein, which we do not see. The older story is that this complex system, which extends as far south as Wombeyan Caves, was formed during an epochal struggle between a Quoll-man called Mirrigan and an Eel/Lizard-man called Gurangatch; the one, naturally, was trying to catch and eat the other; and in their many battles they formed the caves, Mirrigan by piercing the ground on numerous occasions with his spear, Gurangatch on his sinuous, elusive, underground flights. There are ducks, mallards, idling on the still water and Japanese and Spanish tourists photographing each other at the weir which is, after Baxter, passionate almost beyond bearing. I see a water dragon sun-bathing on a mossy concrete platform, its long, thin, whip-like tail curled behind and say, almost involuntarily, Gurangatch under my breath before we go back the way we came.
That night, after dinner, we go upstairs and find an old pool table covered in faded blue plush, torn here and there, with a ragged cush, and play a couple of games using a cue that has lost its tip. It must have been like that for a while because the white ball has all over it round abrasions from the sharp edges of the metal sheath that is meant to cradle the felt. There are pictures on the walls, mostly nineteenth century scenes of transport or celebration and including a few portraits. The woman at reception said the place is famous for its ghosts, sometimes the ABC come up and leave their cameras running in the darkened hallways and always end up capturing something: the Keeper of the Caves, perhaps, old Jeremiah Wilson, his head full of grandeur and doom, muttering prophecies. Or something else entirely. Maggie meets a honeymooning couple called Tony and Josephine, from the Levant although at first I think Egyptian. An older pair, the second marriage for both of them. He is silent, a smoker, with a long, sculpted head and very white false teeth. She, ebullient, irreverent, very happy. Which cave should we go to in the morning, she asks; the Orient or the Temple of Baal? We have booked already, the Orient. Baal, I say, was a Phoenician deity. The Lord of the Flies. Her dark almond-shaped eyes go enormous, filling her face, whether from mockery or alarm I cannot tell. Phoenician? she breathes and before us for a moment lies all antiquity. There is a locked green metal door in the cliff near where we sleep and here we gather next morning. About thirty of us, the larger portion of the party consisting of Hindu monks and their acolytes. Half a dozen men in orange robes, a dozen fellows in jeans and sneakers, all with bright red dots on their foreheads. I talk to one young man, he tells me these are living saints, from India, come for the inauguration of a new temple in Sydney; Blacktown perhaps, somewhere west anyway. They are very holy, he says. I seem to discern the acme of spiritual pride in their demeanour but that is perhaps unkind. The guide is a bluff fellow called Richard, he unlocks the door and shows us down a tunnel cut in the living rock. The floor’s awash and a couple of troglodytes, lights on their helmets, come out of the gloom in overalls and gumboots: agents of the weekly hosing. Another door is unlocked and we are in the Orient, its pinks and ambers, the tawny radiance of its impossible baroques. You are to touch nothing, the guide tells us, your sweat turns those pastels grease-black; decay began with the first gasp of wonder; and continues in the glow of the heat of our bodies. We go up and down and along the metal walkways, the precipitous steps, trying to hear his commentary above the chatter and giggle of the acolytes, who will not be quiet. I see a swami touch a stalactite: curiosity, incredulity, a sense of absolute entitlement. Is his touch uncontaminated? Divine? I get the guide to myself for a moment and ask about the skeleton—the bones of a man found crystallized in the utter depth of the system. He was washed in by a flood, Richard says. All the way to River Cave. A gesture with a torch: Down there. We are standing before a rockfall. A cascade of jagged boulders, of misshapen speleothems. An awful sense of claustrophobic darkness beckoning. You can worm your way down through crevices and holes to where the bones lie; but the guides are instructed, out of respect for the indigenous dead, not to mention them. I only talk about it now if someone notices, he says. Usually I say they are wombat bones. On the way back, in the shadow of a formation called the Mosque, I fall behind the main group; when the light wavers out I cannot see my hand in front of my face. From the antecedent dark, a cool dry wind blows; there is the sharp ammonia of bat shit. Dust of an ancient sea-bed, precipitate in a water droplet, plinks to the floor. They are, I think, they must be, the bones of Mirrigan.
Climbing out of the ground we blink in the harsh light flashing over the Blue Lake, vaporizing the sap in the grey-green trees to clouds of eucalypt mist over Mount Inspiration. There are fairy wrens pee-peeping in the brush, the bright blue feathers on the male like pieces of the sky; one alights for a moment on the windowsill of the room while I’m calling Antony to say we’re on our way. In the dunny at the car park, a black toilet skink slips away into the aged, aromatic pug behind the stained porcelain bowl. We could go to Rydal via Oberon, passing Norway, Edith, Mozart but despite the seduction of the names, the route through Hampton is more direct. Just as well: at the top of the long hill climb out the Toyota’s engine is boiling and there is a protracted and expensive detour via Lithgow, for repairs, before we get to Antony’s. He comes out from the gloom of his low house, hollow-cheeked, staring-eyed, thinner than when last I saw him—cadaverous, almost. My wife has left me, he says. On Saturday. This is Monday. He had driven her down to Ashfield to stay with her daughter and it wasn’t until he returned that he realized she had taken all her things, including household ornaments. It was, to use one of her own words, unexpectable. He takes us on the obligatory tour of the sculpture garden then we sit outside drinking red wine and smoking rollies while brightness falls from the air and the yellow-tailed black cockatoos go creaking and yawping to their rest. The common outside Antony’s gate is Crown Land, apparently, and he points proudly to the thick growth of native grasses around the here-and-there blackened trunks of the eucalypts. When the time is right, he confesses, I burn it—just like the Aborigines used to. Oh, yes, I do. He has larger plans; the land bordering the creek to the east, owned by a wealthy syndicate of Sydney-siders, also, he feels, needs burning; he has a plan, not to be divulged here. Why not, he continues; and if it goes to court, well, I will defend myself. I’m an old man, I wouldn’t mind going out in a blaze of glory. In that wealth of fiery dreams he has forgotten all about, as he puts it, the thing he can’t remember any more. We spend the night, as if on Cold Mountain, in the small hut adjoining his studio, with its smell of oil paint and its bushfire canvases, and in the morning he shows us his sketchbooks from Harbin, China, where Mary comes from: frozen octopedes, tai chi dancers, park singers, grotesque politburocrats as seen on TV, street life, bird life, fish life, human life. She used to practice her calligraphy for one hour every morning he says and then no more. Later, when we are back in Sydney, a letter comes; Antony is sitting in his studio with the fiery paintings all around him and, outside, rain dripping from the eaves: If I had drunk a bit less wine my tongue may not have turned so often to the collapse, he writes, for after all it surely is a subject of so little significance in the greater view of Eternity? From this studio window one views the astonishing growth of plants, visits of birds, movement of air and when I turn off the radio I hear the sound of air, actually the sound of time, the Earth.