I was five years old when I first visited the Murchison goldfields. My aunt and uncle were teaching at the school in Cue and I spent a week during my first year of schooling in a class there with my cousin. There were two other white children, but the rest of the school's two classes were made up of kids from the Aboriginal community surrounding the town.
I was a very shy little girl and I remember feeling rather overwhelmed at being the outsider, and crying a lot. I cried because I had not brought any coloured pencils with me. I cried when a black girl with skinny legs and no shoes opened the door to my toilet and stared silently at me, pants dangling around my ankles, children skipping by in the playground behind her. I cried after falling face first into a mudhole while running away from an unseen pursuer during a game of hide and seek in the mallee scrub.
I remember running wild and free with my brother and two cousins over the red dome of Walga Rock, ancient rock art seared into an overhang beneath us. One night there was a feast, with snake and emu and kangaroo cooked over an open fire. They are among the most vivid memories from my early childhood; being yanked from white suburbia into the red earth and blue skies at the edge of the desert.
After decades of holidays spent clinging to the coast, following the beaches and coves of the Southern and Indian Oceans, I found myself drawn inland again. We travelled slowly; at a pace suited to our one year old. After a night at the farm and another in a roadside donga we reached Cue. As a girl I had called it a ghost town, but looking more closely at the map I realised the ghost towns were actually dotted around the surrounding plains.
We drove out to Big Bell, once a bustling town servicing the goldmine of the same name. A crumbling art deco hotel and the old chapel are the only buildings still standing. The rest were picked up and moved elsewhere when the mine closed down in the 1950s. We wandered the old streets and imagined the buildings back into being; the children clustered around the old concrete drinking fountain at the school; the picture theatre; and the green lawns which were said to front every home.
Despite the empty shopfronts and footpaths you could safely drive a car down, Cue seemed busier than it did 30 years ago. The caravan park was full of grey nomads keen to try their hand at prospecting, and there was a business or two having a go of it. It is a beautiful town, built on the back of the goldrush in the days before fly-in fly-out workers were even dreamed of.
The shire run caravan park had just opened a swish new ablution block, and taken the showers out of the cells in the old gaol, which had doubled as a shower and toilet block until very recently. Graffiti in the shower stalls marks where uncles and elders were chained. I was glad I did not have to wander across there with my boys for a midnight dash to the toilet.
The old Freemasons' Lodge, currently undergoing renovation, is said to be the biggest corrugated iron building in the southern hemisphere. I am sure there is a reason it never caught on as a building material for homes in the desert. Imagine those freemasons in their shirts, ties and jackets, sweat running down their collars and dampening their palms as they made their secret handshakes behind those searingly hot iron walls.
We could no longer run wild over Walga Rock - but there was fenced access to the rocky overhang where the rock art gallery is still remarkably well preserved. No one is sure how a painting of a tall ship, with lines of Arabic script beneath it, came to be there some 350km from the coast. So many stories still echoing along the songlines. The desert is positively thrumming with them. We can't wait to go back.