Those poignant moments of real human connection are the ones that never leave you, but are also the ones that you never see coming.
In 2003, I was part of team of people working to write a management plan for an Aboriginal art site in far western NSW. It was a beautiful place, nestled along a dry creek bed; the rock art timeless in its depiction of ancient cultural stories. As is normal with such projects, it was essential that whilst we were on site, we were accompanied by Aboriginal elders.
The next day I found myself driving to the site with an old Aboriginal man as my passenger. I wondered what on earth I was going to talk to him about as we were worlds apart. There I was, a young non-indigenous woman from the city, him, an old Aboriginal man from the country.
We drove in silence.
I wasn’t frightened by the silence, but it made me think about other times I’d been ‘out bush’ with my family on 4WD holidays.
I started to talk about my love of the bush and camping in the middle of nowhere. We passed a dead roo by the side of the road, the smell hitting our nostrils, making me screw up my face and smile. I made a comment about the dangers of roos by the road at sunset, when he began to recount an amazing story about having to drive along a country road at night without working headlights. The lights had died on route and the only way he could see well to drive was to stick closely behind the well-lit road-trains (large trucks) which frequent country Australia. But, this didn’t work for long.
The road-train must have hit a kangaroo
because suddenly a dead kangaroo came flying out from under the truck and landed on his car! We talked about kangaroos, camping trips, camp fires, watching the sun go down over the desert, and about his life as a feral goat catcher.
Arriving at the art site, I got on with work and he sat in the shade. We occasionally acknowledged each other throughout the day and again shared silence over lunch. At the end of the day I put out my hand to shake his and said, ‘thank you’.
He took my hand, said nothing, and shook it in the usual manner, but as I went to release my grip, he wouldn’t let go. He continued to hold my hand firmly for what felt like ages, placing his other hand on top of our hands.
Finally he looked up and smiled at me.
Two simple words, but it was a special moment that confirmed we’d had a good day together.