The nun’s cave

Owen Zupp, The nun’s cave

By all accounts, it was just another charter flight. A lone doctor, flown to a remote community to provide medical checks and medications. Nothing out of the ordinary, and for me, the inevitable sitting around and waiting that charter pilots know so well. However, from the time that the runway at Balgo Hill loomed ahead, it started to become apparent that this was no ordinary day.

While the rich, red dirt runway was nothing new, off the far end the sky was filled with what seemed to be thousands of soaring hawks. They seemed to be disappearing into the very ground beyond the airport and emerging just as mysteriously. At that stage my only concern was their presence if I aborted the landing and climbed towards them. This never eventuated and I parked my twin-engined Cessna beneath the clearest blue Kimberley sky.

The doctor bid me adieu through the open window of the dust-covered four-wheel drive, mumbling something about when he might be back; give or take an hour. I put the silver foil sunscreens in place inside the Cessna’s cabin, dressed the seat-belts and set up the cockpit for departure….whenever that may be.

Still curious about the swirling birds I began to wander along the airfield’s edge towards the distant threshold. As I drew closer the amazing scene ahead of me became apparent. For The ground seemed to fall away dramatically and the hawks were actually flying into openings on the side of a cliff face. Balgo actually sat atop a Mesa-like structure, except this sheer drop extended for as far as the eye could see. It was not so much a canyon as the remnants of a massive inland water mass, now drained. And I was standing on the shore-line.

As I peered over the edge, fascinated by the hawks, I could see more holes in the rock face where the birds now rested, but water lapped millions of years ago. It was mid-afternoon and if I squinted tightly and let my mind drift I could imagine this enormous inland lake filled with prehistoric water as Diprotodon’s wandered around behind me.

My time-machine was interrupted by the voice of another who was obviously intrigued by pensive state. We chatted for quite some time and then he guided me further around the edge and beyond the main group of birds. We came upon a very small hole just in from the cliff face with an old wooden ladder poking out. The hole was barely wide enough for a grown man’s shoulders, but my new friend gestured towards the ladder. He then uttered simply, “The Nun’s Cave”.

With the optimism of youth and the build of a younger me, I slipped down the ladder, beyond the surface and into an amazing cave. It had seemingly been formed by the inland ocean washing in and eroding the rock face and perhaps the opening that I scampered down had once been a blow-hole. But now it was a cave, opening towards the west and the lowering sun, offering an unsurpassed view of the extensive gorge.

Within the cave it was cool, sheltered from the Kimberley sun. In various corners were low stone platforms like shelves and on some rested the remnants of burned down candles. My guide informed me that many years ago, nun’s from the mission would come to this cave and seek solace or hold small services. And even though this cave was his spiritual land long before Europeans set foot in Australia, my new friend respected this as ‘sacred ground’.

I explored further within the cave and aside from candles, there were rosaries, small crosses and even an old bible. Its pages were a little wrinkled, but considering the passage of the years, it was in remarkable condition. The dry central Australian air had preserved the entire scene as it had been left, decades before. It was a time capsule.

My friend ascended the ladder, assuring me that he would fetch me when the doctor had completed the clinic. So now I stood there, alone in this hallowed hall of nature’s making. I retrieved the small back-pack that I had thrown down the hole, sat down and drank a good amount of water. I sat there for an hour in the silence and watched the sun creep past the cave’s upper edge and lower towards the horizon. The occasional hawk flew by, but otherwise it was as serene as I have ever known life to be.

I reached into my pack and drew out a pen and paper to write a letter home about this scene. My adjectives did not do the moment justice, but I so wanted to share it with my friends and family so many miles to the east in the urban sprawl. I took photos, but it would be weeks before that roll of film was finished and developed. After I had written the last word, I shoved my thumb deep into the fine red soil before leaving returning my thumb to the page and leaving ‘my mark’. Beneath the thumb print I quickly scrawled, “From the Red Centre”, sealed the envelope and put it in my pocket.

I sat there in the timeless void and understood how this would be the perfect place for the nuns. It was inherently peaceful and spiritual and even evoked emotion. There were no outside influences, just an endless landscape and the sound of one’s own thoughts. The peace was in the land and inside this lone observer.

Ultimately the real world returned in the form of a voice from the top of the ladder. The doctor had completed his tasks and it was time to go. I reluctantly passed my back-pack up and climbed the ladder, passing from subterranean calm into the real world and the walk back to my waiting Cessna.

My departure that late afternoon was picturesque. The sun was setting low on the horizon and the swarming hawks were beginning to settle. As I lifted off and retracted the wheels, the cliff face fell away below like launching from an enormous stone aircraft carrier. I turned towards the sun and glanced back at the many openings where the birds now rested. And then there was one hole…slightly larger…a little foliage growing near the edge. It was the Nun’s Cave and it was a place and a time that I would never forget.