The camping area at Glen Helen in the West Macdonnells was crowded. It was mid-winter, school holidays in much of the country and holidaying school-teachers with their families, as well as the hundreds of grey nomads rambling around the outback, had set up their tents and Winnebagos.
There were signs warning of dingoes and that pets and children should be kept safe. Mums and Dads, with kids in tow, were out strolling around the camping area with their dogs, checking the amount of luxury afforded by this caravan, that tent-annexe and striking up random conversation in that way that people at their ease can.
Across the Finke River at Glen Helen
We watched in the late afternoon as a mum and daughter of perhaps 12 or 13 years, walked by with their diminutive dog, all fluff and snarl. They had a self-satisfied air about them as, with their yappy beast, they promenaded around the tents. We didn’t have a dog, we had a very small hiking tent that provided no luxury, invited no comment and was only appreciated by us. We were just passed by and we thought nothing more of them – at that time.
Night comes early and cold in July in the centre of Australia and with every other camper, we cocooned into our sleeping bags soon after dark. We were woken some time later by the thrum of the bounding feet of at least one large animal and the increasingly shrill yapping of one small one. The bounding came closer, the yapping ended abruptly and became a gurgling throttle, then a strangled wheeze as the sound trailed off – and then silence. We whispered our conjectures as to the origins and meaning of the sounds that we’d heard. It was much too cold to even look out of the tent and we eventually fell back to sleep.
In the chilled air of the morning, we chatted to our immediate neighbours to ask if they had heard anything in the night. No, they were all sound sleepers, as were the neighbours that they asked in relay.
We were scraping our breakfast bowls and sipping our tea when the mum and daughter from the previous evening walked up in apprehension. “Someone said that you heard something in the night. What did you hear?” In between body-wracking sobs, the daughter managed to tell us that their dog was missing. “Did you hear anything,” again asked the mother.
We had to say what we heard – the large animal sounded about the size of a dingo, the small animal was about the size of Fluff and Snarl and the sound had died away up to and across the road where the local dingoes are known to have a den. The body-wracking sobs gave way to body-shuddering howls and the progress of the expressions on both of their faces showed the horror of their dog’s demise being played out upon them. They withdrew to their abject sorrow.
The signs did give a warning of dingoes and that pets should be kept secure, but we didn’t point that out in deference to their anguish. No-one likes a smart-arse.
And nor did I ask if Fluff and Snarl’s name was really Azaria.